Success in stemming HIV infections caused “fatigue” toward combating the virus and may result in reduced funding for treatment and prevention, said the former executive director of the United Nations’ AIDS program.
“There is clearly AIDS fatigue,” Peter Piot, who became director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in September, said in a Nov. 25 interview in London. “Things go by fashion. There’s a paradox that when there’s results, often political leaders think, ‘OK, great, declare victory, we can move to the next problem,’ because there are so many problems. That would be really frightening, with bad consequences.”
AIDS, an immune disease that was first discovered in 1981, killed 1.8 million people last year, down from a peak of 2.1 million in 2004, according to the UNAIDS annual report last week. About 2.6 million people worldwide contracted HIV, the AIDS-causing virus, last year, 19 percent fewer than in 1997, when the number of new infections peaked, the report said. New infections declined for a 12th straight year.
More than 1.2 million people began taking anti-HIV drugs in 2009, up 30 percent from a year earlier, said the Geneva-based agency. About 5.2 million people in low- and middle-income countries have access to treatments now, according to the report.
While it’s “a spectacular success,” that more than 5 million people with HIV are being treated with antiviral drugs, there are 33 million people with HIV in the world, said Piot, 61, who speaks at a conference in London today.
AIDS funding reached $15.9 billion last year, $10 billion short of what is needed this year, according to UNAIDS. Funding for prevention needs to be spent more selectively, Piot said.
“In Latin America, for example, most HIV-prevention programs are directed towards the general public, people who are not at high risk and there is not much going on in the gay community where the problem is,” said Piot. “That’s a waste of money then. My mother doesn’t need HIV prevention, she’s 87.”
Piot, a Belgium-born doctor and microbiologist, stepped down as executive director of UNAIDS in 2008 after 13 years as its head. He co-discovered the deadly Ebola virus in 1976.
Three prevention trials in 14 months that have raised hopes that HIV can be defeated after decades of failed efforts to develop a vaccine are “semi-breakthroughs,” Piot said.
Gilead Sciences Inc.’s Truvada, sold since 2004 to subdue HIV in infected people, cut the risk of contracting the virus by 44 percent, and reduced new infections as much as 73 percent in those who used it most, according to results published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Other research milestones on HIV and AIDS include a study presented in July that showed a vaginal gel containing Gilead’s Viread cut infections by 39 percent among women in South Africa. In September last year, an experimental vaccine cut infections by 31 percent in a trial in Thailand.
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