To mark the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the Concordia Community Lecture Series invited AIDS activist Stephanie Nixon to speak about the possibilities and issues surrounding HIV vaccines.
“There is scientific evidence that a vaccine is possible,” says Nixon. “Advances in molecular biology and basic HIV research have led to the development of promising strategies for HIV effective vaccines.”
Nixon is a PhD candidate from the University of Toronto and for the past fours years has been the co-chairperson for the International Council of AIDS Services Organization (ICASO) in Toronto. As an expert on vaccines, she has worked extensively in the field of HIV/AIDS dealing with policies, social aspects and physiotherapy.
“Measles, yellow fever, smallpox, and polio have been eradicated because of effective vaccines.” Nixon said. But like the history of those vaccines, an HIV vaccine still has many hurdles to overcome.
When it comes to success stories from the front line, the news is not encouraging. Current prevention efforts – including education, condom distribution, free needle distribution to intravenous drug users, peer counselling and a safer blood supply have slowed the spread of HIV/AIDS, but has not stopped it. Drug treatments for HIV/AIDS are costly, and the regimes are often rigid and difficult to adhere to.
“Prevention and treatment strategies are vital and must be practiced,” Nixon said. “But a vaccine can be used as part of the overall strategy to fight HIV/AIDS.”
But according to AIDS activists, the development of a vaccine may not be the biggest struggle that lies ahead. Poor countries with high incidences of HIV/AIDS who need a vaccine most may not be able to afford it.
Only twenty years ago, to be diagnosed with HIV was to be given a death sentence. Shortly thereafter – at least in wealthier countries – medication and treatment became available to many with HIV/AIDS, reducing AIDS-related sickness and deaths.
But that hope has not reached the overwhelming majority of people in the poorer countries who can’t afford or even access treatment. The solution according to Nixon is to encourage rich countries like Canada to become more involved in HIV vaccine research.
“As one of the richest nations in the world Canada has a moral obligation to contribute generously to the international effort to develop an affective HIV vaccine.” She adds that the government could sponsor human testing in poorer communities where AIDS is widespread.
There are currently no clinical trials for an HIV vaccine with human subjects underway in Canada.
“An effective vaccine is more likely to be discovered if testing occurs at the community level,” she said, adding: “It is at this level where testing is relevant to the targeted populations. The testing can be consensual, locally monitored and compliment existing prevention strategies.”
No exact figures are available on the amount of money being spent on HIV vaccine research globally, but estimates range from $US 450-600 million a year. This represents less than one percent of the spending on all global health research and development. In Canada, about $CDN 2.14 million a year is being spent on HIV vaccine research.