Voice of America (Washington, DC)

24 July 2014

Africa: At Aids Conference, Prevention Pill Stirs Excitement

Photo: Siegfried Modola/IRIN
A sex worker in Kenya (file photo).

Participants in this year's International AIDS Conference welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly HIV virus - one of the advances that have provoked celebrations as well as debates.

Medical treatment of the virus is big business, generating multibillion-dollar annual revenues.

Dr. Luiz Loures, deputy director of the United Nation's AIDS agency, UNAIDS, said those advances include better treatment options but also pill-based prevention.

"We now know that treatment, in addition to saving lives, may become a major tool in terms of prevent(ing) the expansion of the AIDS expansion," he said. Starting early can "play a major role in the journey towards the end of the epidemic."

Loures was referring to one of the more exciting new advances: pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. Pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences makes Truvada, a pill with a success rate of up to 75 percent in preventing HIV transmission, according to a recent study published in the medical journal Lancet.

James Rooney, an official with the California-based company, explained PrEP's role in the war against AIDS. "It's a strategy that uses HIV drugs that are often times used for treatment," he said, "but in this case, the drugs are actually given to individuals who are at high risk for becoming infected."

But AIDS activist Gus Cairns said it may be too soon to celebrate. He suggested many people may not want to take an AIDS drug when they don't have AIDS and will prefer to stick to condoms.

"PrEP is going to arrive incrementally, very slowly" on the market, Cairns said. "It's not going to be a sudden revolution, and the chances are still there may be people who simply can't use it, for whom it's just not the answer."

Sub-Saharan African, the world's hardest-hit region for HIV/AIDS, needs to have a choice about PrEP, said Brian Kanyemba, a researcher with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in South Africa. His country has the globe's highest incidence of HIV, with more than 6 million people infected.

Noting that condom use had significantly decreased in South Africa, Kanyemba called for access to the new drug: "Let it be available. Let the discussion start right now."

This year's AIDS conference has featured thousands of hours of programing on every aspect of this mystifying virus, from the science to the social impact.

But the one thing all of these activists want is the one thing scientists say they're getting closer and closer to: a cure.

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