Laura Kirkegaard, Head of Advocacy at AIDS-Fondet and NGO Delegate for Europe representing the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), shares why it’s important that we all become activists for an AIDS vaccine
Today is World AIDS Vaccine day. By echoing the slogan of the frontrunners of AIDS activism – “Until there is a cure” – I want to remind myself and everybody else of that central – but still missing – piece of the HIV prevention puzzle. In the history of infectious diseases, no major viral epidemic has been eliminated without a vaccine. Yet we talk very little about it, don’t we?
As an HIV/AIDS and development advocate, I get entangled in complex discussions around hard-to-reach-populations, decriminalization, transitional funding mechanisms, grant management, development policy issues … which are all very relevant – and to me, interesting – topics! Nevertheless, in light of today’s theme these issues seem quite removed from the reason why I chose this career path in the first place: to put an end to that virus!
Well, that sounded bombastic, but don’t we want to aim high? And it is still my big dream that we find a vaccine that can protect all humans regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, profession or income level. Despite all our efforts to make treatment available to as many as possible and despite the preventive effect of our success in doing so, an affordable, safe and effective HIV vaccine is our best shot at a future without AIDS.
I have learned that probably the first HIV vaccines that we will see might not offer 100% protection and that they might not protect us all to the same degree or forever. But even with a less than perfect preventive effect, a vaccine could mean millions of infections averted and, together with existing and new prevention methods, it could mean the end of AIDS.
Developing any vaccine takes a long time. The polio vaccine, for example, took almost 50 years to develop. AIDS vaccine research is a relatively young science. However, we have reason to be optimistic today. Recent breakthroughs include the first ever trial that found evidence of protection in humans and researchers have also identified what could eventually be the “Achilles heel” of the HIV virus and intense efforts are on-going to fully leverage the potential of these extraordinary findings.
“Market failure”: that is the technical term for the self-evident fact that the private sector is not trying to meet the demand of those who cannot afford their product. This is why my organization asks our government to fund research in a HIV vaccine for the world’s poorest, and this is why we have been partners with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative for more than 10 years.
Market failure is why the vaccine is not coming by itself; the demand is not heard, financially speaking. But we activists can be a mouthpiece, and we can empower communities to speak for themselves. Let this year be the day that we lend our voices to this cause and make sure the demand is heard – from communities all over the world. As David Apuuli said at the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico: “AIDS vaccines also need activists.”
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Until there is a vaccine!