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May 16, 2012

Is an AIDS Vaccine Almost Here?

aids-suffererWhile AIDS has become less of a threat in most developed countries, in many parts of the world it is still a rampant epidemic.  Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 30 million people have died.  About 34 million people globally are infected with HIV, with about 2.7 million more infected each year, according to United Nations estimates.  There are 50,000 new infections in the U.S. each year.  In addition to the havoc AIDS wreaks on its victims and their families, it is also expensive to treat.  The lifetime cost of treating one person diagnosed with the AIDS virus has been estimated at more than $600,000.

UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2010

Truvada-pillsThe holy grail in the battle against AIDS has always been an AIDS vaccine.  New research is now showing a clearer path to an AIDS vaccine.  One of the first human trials of an AIDS prevention drug was conducted in Thailand in 2009.  Results of the study showed an infection reduction of 31%.  Now a new milestone has been reached in AIDS prevention.  Recently, Gilead, a biopharmaceutical company, announced the development of Truvada, an HIV prevention pill.  The drug has been on the market since 2004.  Though not approved for such use by the FDA, doctors have been prescribing Truvada for healthy patients considered to be at high risk for contracting HIV.

Now the FDA is set to approve the drug for use in HIV prevention.  Initial trials have been promising. As reported by Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press,

In one U.S. government study of more than 1,200 men and women in Botswana, Truvada lowered the HIV infection risk by about 78 percent. Another larger study in Africa found a slightly lower rate of effectiveness, but researchers say that if used as directed, the pill can be 90 percent effective or higher.

An HIV prevention pill would be easy to use, but does have its risks according to some healthcare practitioners and researchers.  For example, if not taken daily and used in conjunction with condoms, it could lead to deadlier, more drug resistant forms of the HIV/AIDS virus.  Also, there is the danger of complacency about continuing to practice safe sex because of the availability of an HIV prevention pill.

Affordability, however, is still a major issue.  While Truvada and other AIDS drugs are potent, they are very expensive.  They are usually priced beyond the reach of most of the world’s most vulnerable populations.  Annual treatment with Truvada in the U.S., for example, costs $11,000 to $14,000. However, Gilead has agreed to make Truvada available in poor countries for as low as $9 per month.

As much as the drugs themselves, a business model based on affordable treatment is critical in making the AIDS vaccine a reality and bring the global AIDS epidemic under control.