Tuesday, February 21, 2012

HIV Vaccine: A Year or Two Away?


One of the most under reported areas of news in the last few years has been HIV research. At the start of 2012 there has been an explosion of discoveries and possibilities. Yet, most people don't  know about this exciting news. Scientists are closing in on a vaccine and possible cure for HIV.

This is amazingly good news which is so hard to find that these days.  There is no villain or group to be outraged at so maybe that's why the news isn't being widely circulated. The HIV vaccine is a story of people coming together and working for a greater good. Not the stuff of tabloids or gossips. The silence may be because there have been so many dashed hopes and false starts in the 20 years of intense research. It also may be because there's an ever-growing population of Westerners who are able to live with the disease. The plague of the 80s has now become a common living condition for many men and women. While people in Africa still suffer and die in the millions, HIV coverage in mainstream media is rare.

Still there is a medical race going on right now. And it's happening in several countries, and among hundreds of scientists.  The race is to attain, verify, and patent an HIV vaccine and then find a formulaic cure for those currently infected.

Curing HIV would be one of the biggest medical feats since the polio vaccine. In Belgian, a team of scientist just began a round of research this February on a new vaccine. Meanwhile in America there are several different groups pursuing a vaccine in different laboratories and universities.

What's going in this race is the best in Western medicine and science: vigorous and thorough pursuit of first identifying the illness, then containing it, and finally eradicating it.

AIDS was first mis-identified as GRID and thought to be a problem for gay men. This mis-identification of the illness only played into society's homophobia. When scientist realized that the disease could effect everyone, the acronym of Gay Related Immune Deficiency, was no longer accurate. Once it became about a virus and not a person's moral or sexual standing, scientists could get down to work.

When the Black Plague struck Europe there was a similar moralization around sudden death. It was only when millions had perished and panic reached a frenzy that society shifted away from moralization and toward practical containment methods. The immediate fear of extinction won out over and punishing perceived sinners.

Once AIDS was properly identified then scientist could track who it was spread through blood. Education on safe sex, clean needle programs, and testing blood banks dramatically cut down the rate of infection in the Western world. The next step in containment was finding treatments so that people could continue to live while a cure was found. AZT and now a variety of drug cocktails are available that can balance out a person's system.

People have access to information, opportunities of prevention, and ways to treat and live with infections. The last step is eradication. We are witnessing the end-game of HIV. What was once doubted, is now an assumed: in my lifetime there will be a cure or, at the least, a vaccine for HIV. The next generation will be free. The children being born now will look at our fears as excessive. They will take for granted all the millions lost, pain endured, and setbacks to get to their comfort. Future generations will be seen as ungrateful, undereducated, and oblivious to HIV. It is the luxury of modernization and living in a progressive society. The children take the parent's suffering for granted.  I wish this luxury for everyone. 

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