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Why Don’t We Have an AIDS Vaccine?

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marchers for AIDS awareness

A demonstration for AIDS advances in July 2018 in The Netherlands, with Princess Margaret Van Orange pictured at the center. (Credit: Paolo Amorim/shutterstock)

I mentioned to a friend, a gay man nearing 60, that World AIDS Day, which has been observed on Dec. 1 since 1988, was almost upon us. He had no idea that World AIDS Day still exists.

This lack of knowledge is a testament to the great accomplishments that have occurred since World AIDS Day was created 30 years ago. It is also due to an accident in the timing of his birth that my friend escaped the devastation wreaked by AIDS among gay men in the U.S., before there was antiretroviral therapy.

Many people have forgotten AIDS, but there are consequences to forgetting. The fight against AIDS is at a tipping point. Increasingly, there are signs that we may be heading in the wrong direction.

The Elusive AIDS Vaccine

I am a social epidemiologist with more than 20 years of research experience in HIV and STD prevention. I am also the founder of The Basics with Dr. Mo, a sex health communications project that translates prevention science directly for people who need it most.

It is true that global HIV/AIDS success stories abound: Mother-to-child transmission can be reduced to below 5 percent, 75 percent of people living with HIV know their status and 59 percent receive antiretroviral therapy.

Most recently, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) – the use of antiretrovial drugs to prevent HIV infection among those exposed – has proved to be a successful prevention approach.

Yet the prize – a vaccine that can prevent HIV infection – remains elusive, and makes impossible the use of the only known strategy to have ever eradicated an infectious disease: widespread vaccination. That disease was smallpox, in 1980.

Seeds of Unease

Despite the lack of a vaccine, in 2016 United Nations member states adopted a political declaration on ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

As part of the accountability framework, interim 2020 goals set a target of 500,000 new HIV infections for that year. A review of the most recent data estimated 1.8 million new HIV infections in 2017, exactly the same number as in 2016.

Prominent scientists have already begun to question the ability to eradicate AIDS by the 2030 deadline, and concede that the situation has stagnated. The attainment of eradication looks bleak, without the aid of either an effective vaccine or the immediate large-scale promotion and utilization of existing prevention tools (i.e., condoms, voluntary circumcision and potentially PrEP). Given that the vast majority of new HIV infections are sexually transmitted and that condoms have played a decisive role in the global control of HIV transmission, ongoing condom availability and use will be essential to future eradication.

Condoms – both male and female – remain a highly effective mechanism of HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as of other sexually transmitted infections that greatly enhance the risk of HIV transmission.

Condom use is also strongly advised by global public health institutions, including the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in conjunction will all other HIV prevention tools including PrEP, because of their lower levels of effectiveness in preventing transmission.

Condom availability is a different matter and varies greatly from country to country. Countries with the highest levels of HIV often rely heavily on donor support. According to the most recent data, in sub-Saharan Africa in 2013, only 10 condoms were availableannually for every man aged 15 to 64 (as compared with the recommended 50 to 60), and, on average, there was one female condom available for every eight women. Funding required to maintain – let alone scale up – HIV commitments, particularly those dedicated to prevention, are increasingly uncertain.

The hydra, sprouting new heads

Even though condoms are an extremely effective barrier method, it is usage that makes condoms efficacious in preventing HIV transmission. Reported condom use varies considerably around the world, and ranges from 80 percent use by men in Namibia and Cambodia to less than 40 percent usage by men and women in other countries, including some highly affected by HIV such as Sierra Leone and Mozambique.

Age plays a role, too. Among young people aged 15 to 24, condom use at last sex varies from more than 80 percent in some Latin American and European countries to less than 30 percent in some West African countries. In the U.S., condom use is at the lower end of the spectrum: Only one-third of the population uses condoms, a number that has not changed significantly over the past two decades.

The majority – 66 percent – of the world’s HIV/AIDS cases are in sub-Saharan Africa, where there has been much progress, particularly with the provision of antiretroviral therapy.

However, there are worrying signs in other parts of the world. There has been little change in new HIV infections in countries outside of sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2017.

In fact, six of the 10 most populous countries in the world have experienced 10 percent to 45 percent increases in new HIV infections since 2010: Russia, China, Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico and Bangladesh. Even in countries such as the U.S., where new HIV infections have decreased by 8 percent overall, the rates of change are unevenly distributed. For example, young African-American men who have sex with men show no decrease in new infections; African-American gay and bisexual men represent the largest percentage of new HIV infections: more than one-quarter.

The increased provision of antiretroviral therapy to people living with AIDS has had a huge impact on extending life and in preventing new HIV infections. However, there remains 25 percent of the population who live with HIV, about 9 million people, who do not know their status.

While we have been necessarily focused on the head of the hydra in sub-Saharan Africa, other hydra heads are beginning to make their presence known, many in countries ill-prepared to deal with increases in the number of new HIV infections.

In the absence of a vaccine, behavior change in the form of condom use promotion, acceptance and adoption, at a scale that many gay men utilized during the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the industrialized world, will need to occur. There are many challenges: continued stigma and gender inequality, not to mention issues of availability, distribution and proactive, nonjudgmental promotion.

We must not forget. Progress on reducing the rate of new HIV infection has been done before. It can be done again, but only if we take forceful, funded action now.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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Ecology

That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ecology

Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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