As scientists, press, leaders and activists meet at the 21st International AIDS conference in Durban, the Middle East and North Africa region remains embroiled in its own fight against HIV/AIDS.
The odds are stacked against this region, solidly among those groups where infections are increasing – an issue that the conference at Durban is expected to mount concerns about, among others. In addition to discussing the state of the epidemic worldwide, and in high-risk areas, the conference will address the fact that HIV/AIDS is plateauing or peaking in several countries, plus the level of jeopardy this entails.
In this region, 80% of people living with HIV/AIDS are not aware they’re carrying the virus, 85% of those in progressive stages of infection are not receiving treatments and deaths due to AIDS have increased 176%, according to reports from UNAIDS and WHO. There are not enough national strategic plans to tackle the problem and access to life-saving medications remains limited.
Stigma is partly to blame, according to Navid Madani, senior scientist in the Department of Cancer Immunology and Virology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Globally, growing resistance to the antiretroviral drugs used against HIV is the most serious issue facing plans to end the endemic, according to the WHO’s opening statement to Durban’s conference this morning.
Finding preventive measures and a vaccine-antiviral combination that might bring us closer to a cure are underway. In fact only this week, a new study in Science provides insights into the workings of new HIV drugs and into how the virus becomes resistant. Scientists can use these to scrutinize structures insides irregular viruses like HIV to understand the molecular underpinnings of the virus in order to come up with new drug designs.
But finding new drugs is an expensive affair, as meanwhile funding for HIV has been dropping.
Back in the Middle East and North Africa, the extent of the HIV epidemic is undeniable, and governments – some reluctantly and others readily – are beginning to understand there’s a problem in need of curbing.
Just as pivotal to halting the spread is the culture of HIV-related practices, the shame surrounding the virus, the inequality cited by many in terms of medication access and the outdated fears about the prognosis for those infected. The burden falls on scientists, policymakers, healthcare workers and even at-risk communities to try and change the status quo.