THERE is a glimmer of hope, just a glimmer for now, in the grim battle against the rampaging run of the AIDS virus throughout the world.
After nearly two decades of futile searching for a vaccine, researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla are reporting the tantalising discovery of antibodies that can prevent the virus from multiplying in the body and producing severe disease.
It is not a vaccine, they are quick to report, but it might well provide the road map towards producing one.
While it is early days yet to jump for joy, this is exhilarating news for PNG and other countries where AIDS stands as the single biggest threat to its youthful population as well as its socio-economic life.
The Asia Pacific Business Coalition on AIDS (APBCA) projects that by 2025, the projected growth of HIV will cause a reduction in PNG’s annual GDP of 1.3%.
Close to 13% of the workforce could be lost by 2025. This loss of the productive workforce equates to K3 billion. This figure does not take into account lost productivity through the loss of subsequent generations of workers, which would increase the cost to the economy.
Projections for reductions in the workforce are as follows:
*2010 – 3.9%
*2015 – 6.2%
*2025 – 13.5%
By the end of this year, rural adult deaths are projected to reach more than 3,000. By 2025, this will climb to 20,000 deaths a year.
Related to this mortality rate is the loss of productivity of thousands of land plots and market gardens ordinarily producing food for consumption and cash.
It is projected that by the end of this year, nearly 60,000 people will have died from causes related to AIDS. This will rise to more than 400,000 by 2025. Most of these deaths will occur in the 15-49 age group.
The large numbers of people of child-rearing age who die as a result of AIDS will leave behind many orphans. It is expected there will be close on 20,000 maternal orphans this year rising to 117,000 in 2025.
The cost is horrendous. By 2024, it is estimated the total cost of HIV care, support and treatment will be running at some K160 million per year.
It is with this kind of bleak background that we applaud the new findings by the Scripps Research Institute team.
The team reported in the journal Science that it had isolated two so-called broadly neutralising antibodies that can block the action of many strains of HIV, the virus responsible for AIDS.
According to the report, the particular antibodies target a portion of HIV that researchers had not considered in their search for a vaccine.
The target is a relatively stable portion of the virus that does not participate in the extensive mutations that have made HIV able to escape from antiviral drugs and previous experimental vaccines.
To find the antibodies, researchers collected blood samples from people who had been infected with HIV for more than three years without the infection advancing to more severe cases.
Finally, two antibodies taken from an African patient, were able to block the activity of about 75% of the 162 strains of HIV they tested it against.
What the antibodies do is to bind themselves to regions of two proteins on the surface of the AIDS virus. These proteins help the virus invade the cells. The antibodies inhibit the proteins, thereby preventing invasion of new cells. This area had never before been the target of vaccines.
AIDS has decimated world populations, taking 25 million lives with about 34 million worldwide infected with HIV.
The breakthrough is far short of a successful vaccine but it gives tired researchers new hope and impetus to work towards getting one.
It is indeed “opening up a whole new area of science” as was put by Dr Seth F Berkley, president and chief executive of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which funded and coordinated the research.
PNG can contribute in its own way to searches for a vaccine by identifying those people who had carried the virus for a long time without any apparent illness. It might well turn out that they too carry particular strands of antibodies in their bodies which also effectively prevent full-blown AIDS.
We must live in hope that somewhere on this planet walks a person who carries full immunity against the AIDS virus. If such a person can be found, the end of the AIDS scourge will have arrived.
Such a person could be found in PNG.