Small victories feature at AIDS conference
8/16/2006 15:40:37 Reuters Alertnet

Small victories are being won against the AIDS virus, experts said on Wednesday as a report showed that 10 times more people in Africa are getting life-saving HIV drugs than did three years ago, but overall most people who need treatment are still not getting it. Studies showed the benefits of providing drugs would outweigh the costs, and one report predicted that if people were treated, they would be significantly less likely to pass along the virus. Other research presented to the 16th International AIDS conference found that providing nutritious food to AIDS patients can benefit them as much as providing drugs can, and a report highlighted Thai programs as an example of how to use condom and drug distribution to cut infection rates in half. "The moral imperative of universal access to HIV treatment has never been clearer," Dr. Helene Gayle, president of the International AIDS Society, told the conference. The World Health Organization published a survey showing that more than a million people in sub-Saharan Africa now receive drugs that help many with the virus live normal lives. But only 24 percent of those in poor or middle income countries who should be taking the drugs get them, WHO said. The findings suggest that a push has worked, at least partly, to get lifesaving drugs to the people who need them, WHO HIV/AIDS Director Dr. Kevin De Cock said. At the end of 2003, 100,000 people in Africa were being treated -- about 3 percent to 4 percent of those who needed the drugs to stay alive, De Cock said. Now there are 1.04 million. The AIDS virus infects nearly 39 million people globally, and has killed 25 million people since it was identified 25 years ago. Virtually all -- 95 percent -- of people infected with the virus live in the developing world. There is no vaccine. Dr. Julio Montaner of the the Canadian HIV Trials Network presented evidence supporting a theory that people who take the drugs, thus suppressing the virus, are less likely to infect others. His team at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS released a computer model that showed the number of HIV-infected people would be reduced from 40 million to fewer than 1 million over 45 years if all people who need them got the drugs. Thailand provides a good example of how to try to achieve such results, the World Bank said in a report released at the conference. A former hot spot for the virus, Thailand has more than halved the number of new HIV infections over the past decade by providing HIV drugs to nearly 80,000 Thais, more than 90 percent of those who need it, the World Bank said. But many people are left out of drug treatment programs, notably injecting drug users, the conference was told. "Outside of Africa, nearly one in three HIV infections comes from injecting drugs with contaminated equipment, yet in many countries drug users are not able to access HIV treatment," said Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS or UNAIDS. And programs also forget some of the other basics for good health, such as nutritious food, the World Food Program said. It and UNAIDS said that between 3.8 million and 6.4 million people need nutritional support for 2006 to 2008. It costs 66 cents a day to provide nutritious food to an AIDS patient plus his or her family, the agencies said. Scientists reported they had found some intriguing new clues about the virus. Dr. Bruce Walker of Harvard Medical School and colleagues said they had identified a group of HIV-infected people they dubbed "elites" because their bodies can control the virus without drugs. They said as many as one in 300 HIV patients never gets sick and never suffers damage to their immune systems. They are trying to find as many of these people as possible, to study their genetic makeup and see why they escape the fatal effects of the virus. "If we can figure out how people are doing that, we can try to replicate it," Walker said. (For more stories related to the Toronto international AIDS Conference, please go to