The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was discovered 30 years ago. In 1983, French and American scientists working separately came to the same conclusion and published their findings. Identifying and isolating the virus was an early step in setting out to fight it.
In spite of virologist Luc Montagnier’s pioneering work with the then mysterious new disease, he estimates that 34 million people throughout the world are living with it today.
Our Paris correspondent Giovanni Magi asked if enough research has been done in the past three decades.
Montagnier said: “AIDS is not finished, although a lot of young people believe it is because there are medicines for it. Research is fundamentally important, since it works towards developing shorter treatments for people, theoretically so that after a six-to-nine month course of treatment they would become HIV-negative. That is not the case today, and so a lot of research has to be done in this area. The second key area is knowing why the epidemic is still spreading so strongly, especially in South Africa – in a lot of regions in Africa, where women are affected at a disproportionately high rate, which is not the case further north in the world. In my opinion, there are also biological factors with these people, which we can treat. It’s not about treating the virus but about treating factors which make the virus more transmissible. That is entirely possible, even without a vaccine.”
Professor Montagnier highlighted South Africa; the second-worst affected country is Botswana, with one in every four adults HIV-infected. Sixty-nine percent of all the HIV cases in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Botswana, in 2002, was the first country to launch an access-to-medicines programme, and to ask HIV-infected volunteers to help with prevention. David Ngele is one of these activists. In 1993 when he tested positive he was devastated.
Ngele said: “That’s why I started to think of hanging myself. And then I started to think that life is a gift from God, I am not supposed to take it myself. Then I started to think and say, from now, here, what am I doing?”
Concerted attention is paid to prevention in the United States also. Religious groups help, such as at the Union Temple Baptist Church in the capital, Washington. Religious leaders are asked to encourage members of the spiritual community to have the test done. Thirty congregations in the DC area are part of this programme.
Saul M. Levin, with the District of Columbia Department of Health, said: “Faith-base is very important to people in their lives. And they go to the churches, to the synagogues, to the mosques to seek the solace and comfort of religion. So they have a huge platform to be able to educate their community as to why they need to address this. And that’s why this initiative is so important to us.”
According to the government, one million people are infected with HIV in the US, and yet in one of every five cases they are not aware that they have the virus. This means it can be passed on – with terrifying and potentially damaging effect – unknowingly. There is one new case every ten minutes in the US – 50,000 more people each year who are HIV-positive and are, therefore, liable to fall ill.
Our correspondent in Washington, Stefan Grobe, said: “America is still far from getting AIDS under control. Given that most of the victims are gay men or black women, it’s a tough social issue as well. At least the funding of the federal AIDS programme has bipartisan support.”
Warren Buckingham has been at the forefront of the American government’s efforts to fight AIDS. A few months ago, he retired as US Global Aids Coordinator, but still acts as a special advisor. Buckingham was diagnosed HIV-positive 25 years ago. He has spoken out publicly about living with the disease, in a bid to soften the stigma with which it is associated both in the US and Africa. At his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, we asked him about how the virus has affected our societies.
Buckingham said: “Despite all of the loss, despite the death, despite the politicisation of many aspects of the epidemic, we see that it also has brought about some amazing transformations. It transformed individual people who are part of the response to AIDS, it has changed families and how they relate to their gay sons. It has changed how the US government deals with foreign assistance.
“Both here in the US and wherever we work around the world, we still haven’t quite figured out how to get people to change their personal behaviours on a sustained basis.
“I think the sort of knee-jerk stigma of the early years of AIDS – when it was first identified just with gay men and then with injection-drug users – has largely disappeared. But as the stigma has disappeared, so has some of the focus. And so there is an attitude of ‘so what? If I get infected, there are pills that I can take.’ And that’s a high risk.
“There is no population not at risk. We never can rest, and we have to maintain a focus on reaching everybody with messages that speak to them where they live and how they interact with other people.”