Wednesday, July 21, 2010

HIV: Eastern Europe's Gulf Disaster

Coverage of the 18th annual International AIDS Conference has all but been eclipsed by nonstop footage of the BP oil spill, and Lindsay Lohan's arrest.

Absent on the airwaves was this: Africa is no longer the only continent hard hit by HIV infection. Eastern Europe and Central Asia now lead the world as the fastest growers of HIV, as the World Health Organization told the 18th International AIDS Conference.

While new cases of HIV/AIDS have largely stabilized in western Europe, they have spiralled out of control in the east, a fact which is attributed to intravenous drug use.

Back in May, the New York Times ran a story about how the global war on AIDS is "falling apart" and today, in Vienna, former President Bill Clinton exhorted more than than 20,000 scientists and activists from nearly 200 countries not to drop the ball on this disease.

The number of those newly infected with HIV/AIDS in 2008 was 2.7 million, according to the Times, a figure that is expected to climb by one million a year, and nearly double by 2010.

Clinton stressed the toll the current global recession has taken on HIV/AIDS funding, arguing that now, at a time when more than 5.2 million people worldwide receive some form of HIV treatment, is not the time to cut back.

But, the AIDS Conference which ends on Friday is not all doom and gloom. There are promising new developments; AIDS vaccines are on the horizon.

Among the most exciting research being done is with enzymes. Dr. Sudhir Paul, a scientist at the University of Texas Houston Medical School, has identified a deficiency in the immune system in the HIV-infected population, and has come up with a potentially groundbreaking vaccine candidate which produces antibodies that insulate the virus against replication. He has engineered an enzyme that will address the deficiencies in the autoimmune system. As CNBC reports, the vaccine has already been tested, and proven to be effective in laboratory tests.

Dr. Paul's findings will be among those presented at the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna.

Would that it were possible to get the kind of nonstop television coverage about the AIDS crisis in Eastern Europe, and Central Asia that we now get about British Petroleum's Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Because it is a sexually transmitted disease, and/or one that afflicts IV drug users, AIDS is not in the spotlight.

Instead, there is a tendency to sweep the virus under the rug, and take it off the plates of even the most culturally literate of the world population as if infection with HIV reflects some kind of moral leprosy. To the contrary, not devoting as many resources as possible to put the best scientific minds to work is indicative of social, and moral atrophy as we are condemning to death many millions more whose lives could have been saved, but weren't because cost effectiveness seldom represents the cost in human life.