Statements and Webcast
American Foundation for AIDS Research
H.E. Dr. Mathilde Krim, Founding Chairman
8 June 2011
- Statement: English (Check against delivery)
MATHILDE KRIM, Founding Chairman of the Foundation for AIDS Research (amFAR), recalling that in 1981, five cases of the disease had been discovered, said: “None of us in 1981 could have predicted the tragedy to follow,” with the virus that would come to be known as HIV destroying the body’s immune defence system. HIV infection had always had lethal consequences. In the 30 years since its discovery, 25 million people had died worldwide of AIDS-related illness and more than 33 million people now lived with HIV. In the United States alone, more than 56,000 people became HIV-infected each year, and a total of 1 million United States citizens now lived with HIV/AIDS.
In 1981, nothing was known about how the disease was transmitted, she said, nor about if and how it could be prevented and treated, or whether it was confined to one or more “at-risk” groups. While prevention activities and research programmes had been slow to start, they had resulted in “remarkable” success stories in the history of biomedical research. Naming a few, she said a raft of useful prevention interventions had been found, and could be applied “if we’re ready to use them”. Condoms were effective barriers to HIV infection. Other actions included tests to ensure blood safety, male circumcision, and an arsenal of more than 30 antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV-infected people, allowing them to live longer and relatively healthy lives.
Moreover, mother-to-child transmission had been virtually eliminated in some countries with the use antiretroviral treatment, she said, adding that microbicide gel also could reduce women’s risk of contracting HIV. Another study recently had shown that high-risk, but HIV-negative men who had sex with men who also took antiretroviral drugs could reduce their risk of contracting the virus by more than 90 per cent, while another clinical trial showed that healthy, HIV-positive persons were less likely than untreated persons to pass on the virus to their partners. In addition, it now was possible to shield many psychoactive drug users from HIV transmission through the sharing of contaminated needles.
All those advances were good news, she said, especially because the rate of new infections today was outpacing the ability to provide antiretroviral treatment. “We are still losing ground to HIV and we are still losing the battle against HIV and AIDS”, she emphasized. None of the preventive treatments could, by themselves, end the epidemic, but if used in various combinations — and on the scale required to reach all vulnerable populations — they could lead to a substantial and worldwide reduction in the incidence of HIV infection and AIDS. Smart investment in HIV prevention would pay off handsomely, both in life and in treatment costs averted. Ultimately, ending the global AIDS epidemic would require the equivalent of a vaccine for prevention and curative treatments, a goal which had proven difficult, not least because the virus had multiple strains and rapid mutation rates.
Nonetheless, there had been glimpses of hope, she said, notably in 2009, when, for the first time, mothers’ preventive effect had been observed. Certain antibodies also could stop more than 90 per cent of known HIV strains from infecting human cells. Indeed, research was generating more optimism that a cure was now within the realm of possibility, with the “Berlin patient” — an AIDS survivor — serving as living proof that a cure was technically feasible, though procedures that that person had undergone were not likely to be replicable on a meaningful scale. Such advances had led to the formation of collaborative research teams to find a cure. “We have a choice we never had before”, she emphasized, asking delegates whether they should be content with limiting efforts and resources, and dealing with only pieces of an enormous and still growing tragedy. Rather, she challenged them to summon the collective will to make larger, more strategic investments in future research, and to apply the findings earlier — not later — to solve the AIDS epidemic during our lifetime. “The lives we help save may be our own”, she said.