HIV / AIDS Season: Have we seen the worst?

Talk Monday 1st December, 2008

There are currently around 33 million people worldwide living with HIV. Almost 2/3 of these are in sub-Saharan Africa where nearly 12 million children have been orphaned. But while huge progress has been made in some areas – including a decline in HIV-related deaths – the current epidemic cannot be reversed without reducing the rate of new HIV infections.

According to the UN, the slowing of the epidemic is because of improved treatment and more cautious sexual behaviour. Almost 3 million people are receiving treatment in the form of anti retro-viral drugs, and there is optimism among some scientists that microbicides – a preventative cream – might also be a significant part of managing the pandemic, along with other measures.

But just how attainable and sustainable is changing sexual behaviour? Or is it drugs – and access to them – that is the real key to overcoming this epidemic?

The search for the elusive vaccine continues, but for how long can we justify the millions being spent on this when many scientists say we are not much nearer to finding a vaccine than we were 27 years ago when AIDS was first recognised?

We ask our panel of policy makers, scientists, journalists and community activists where they think the future lies for combating HIV and whether we really have seen the worst.

Professor Robin Shattock is Professor of Cellular and Molecular Infection in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine at St George’s, University of London. He directs a research group working on the pathogenesis and transmission of HIV infection, with a particular emphasis on the development of prevention strategies applicable to the developing world. This work is being used to develop safe and effective vaginal microbicides, topical formulations designed to prevent HIV infection of women, the first generation of which have just entered large-scale Phase III efficacy trials in Africa. An additional important focus of his team’s work is the HIV Science In Action project, a new initiative that aims to bridge the gap between the laboratory research and the community.

Michael Bartos leads the Prevention, Care and Support team at the UNAIDS Secretariat in Geneva. He has worked with UNAIDS since 2000, both in headquarters and representing the organization in the field. Before joining UNAIDS he was a researcher in Australia’s national HIV research programme, working on social research issues, and has been involved in the AIDS response since the earliest days of the epidemic. 

Thandi Haruperi believes passionately that HIV is not just a health issue but a developmental concern; across the southern quadrant of the continent, the population is at risk of extinction as life expectancy has fallen to below 40. An advocate of the strength and adaptability of the human spirit, Thandi believes that we all have the capacity to learn and grow from our experiences no matter how challenging and seemingly insurmountable. This belief is notable in Thandi’s own experience of living with HIV. A proud mother of two, Thandi is a Zimbabwean who grew up in Zambia and has been in the UK for the last 17 years.  Founding Director of RestorEgo Consultancy, Thandi holds a BSc in Healthcare Law and Ethics and is currently studying for an MSc in Change Management.

Anton Kerr is a Senior Policy Advisor at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, which supports community based responses to HIV across 30 countries. Anton’s focus of work is the political and financial environment needed to support the global response to HIV. Anton Chairs the Finance Working group of the UK’s Stop AIDS Campaign and is a Trustee of the UK Consortium on HIV and Development and a Trustee of Friends of the Treatment Action Campaign (FoTAC) and Chair of Para55 – The Commonwealth Action Group on HIV.

Sarah Boseley is the health editor of the Guardian. She has won a number of awards for her work on HIV/Aids in Africa, including the One World Media Award (twice) and the European section of the Lorenzo Natali prize, awarded by the European Commission.