Our take: World AIDS day: we’ve come a long way

We’ve spent a lot of time in the past two years celebrating scientific advances and championing brilliant, hard-working scientists. But it’s easy to lose sight of just how much difference science can make over time. That’s why it’s worth pausing to reflect on World AIDS Day, which was marked yesterday, as it is each December 1. This year’s theme was: “Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice.”

There was a time when people wouldn’t have believed there could be an end to the epidemic. Since the virus was identified a little over 30 years ago, UNAIDS estimates that around 36.3 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. For years, being diagnosed as HIV positive effectively meant receiving a death sentence: many South Africans will remember the denialism and bad science that marked government policy during Thabo Mbeki’s presidency. 😒

The past decade or so have brought fundamental shifts in how South Africa and other countries manage HIV and AIDS. Massive strides in treatment mean that this year’s theme wasn’t entirely wishful thinking. For starters, antiretroviral (ARV) treatments are more accessible. Some come in the form of a pill which, if taken daily, stops HIV from copying itself or spreading in the body. This also reduces the chances of it spreading to others. And, as we’ve reported before, researchers say a bimonthly injection containing the ARV drug cabotegravir is highly effective in preventing HIV, especially in women. A similar injection was recently developed in the UK.

The Conversation also reported that oral use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily preventative medication, is increasing among pregnant and breastfeeding women in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in Kenya. Pharmaceutical companies are also finding new ways to make ARVs more palatable for kids. 🙇🏽

Things are a little more complex on the vaccine front. The HI virus changes so fast that it’s tough for scientists to develop a fully effective vaccine (HIV is very different to Covid-19 because it goes straight for the immune system, so the methods used to fast-track Covid vaccines can’t simply be copied! ☝🏽). Still, researchers are hard at work and several vaccine trials are currently underway. This year, the University of Oxford and several African partner institutions kick-started the HIV-CORE 0052 trial – which sounds vaguely like Harry Potter’s enchanted broom – with a clinical trial in Zambia; it will also be rolled out in Uganda and Kenya.

There’s still a lot of work ahead: South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world, The Conversation reported. But given the astonishing changes we’ve seen in the last decade, there’s little doubt that scientists are up to the task. Now that’s something worth celebrating! 💫

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 2 December 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.