Thirty-nine million people have been infected by the HIV virus, and seventeen million have died as a result, mostly in the developing world. Nearly five million more are being infected each year. The pharmaceutical industry spends US$1 billion to develop a product for conditions with much less impact – if there is a market. But for HIV/AIDS the people of the principal “market” have incomes of under $1 a day.
(ag /ehj) – There are only two ways they can be cared for – by government institutions and academia taking the place of the industry, or at least paying for it to do what is necessary. Neither is happening on anything like a sufficient scale to tackle the extraordinary human and the scientific challenge of HIV.
HIV is a unique virus in human experience, devastating our immune system – which might otherwise present a natural defence; and transmitted in 80% of cases by a great human pleasure and biological necessity – sex. (Two other transmission routes are related: at childbirth, and through breast-feeding; the third is by needle-sharing in intravenous drug use.)
The immune system it attacks is highly evolved, complex and only partially understood. And the psychology and sociology of sexual behaviour might be said to be the same, varying enormously from culture to culture and almost always under a screen of discretion: we do not easily talk openly about our sex lives, or easily change our behaviour. Drug use is also hidden behind a veil.
The great challenge for Europe, with its long history of close involvement with the developing countries where the burden of HIV/AIDS is highest, in Africa, Latin America and increasingly in Asia, is – at sufficient scale – to investigate the quickest and most effective routes to ease the burden of sufferers and their families; to address with much greater vigour and intelligence the fundamental, practical and simply managerial problems facing the creation of effective vaccines, microbicidal barriers, and new treatments, aiming to attract the brightest scientists and managers of a generation; and to complement and combine this work with related efforts elsewhere.