News / USA

Pioneering Pediatrician Leads Charge to Cut Infant HIV Infections

Arthur Ammann discovered that mothers could transmit HIV or AIDS to their babies through the placenta or breast-feeding

California immunologist Arthur Ammann pioneered research that drastically cut the HIV infection rate of infants.
California immunologist Arthur Ammann pioneered research that drastically cut the HIV infection rate of infants.

Multimedia

Audio
Jan Sluizer

Arthur Ammann grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the son of working class German immigrants who had never finished grade school. But his parents supported his desire to go to college and become a doctor. And when he did, Ammann went on to lead a global charge to cut the HIV infection rate among infants.

While in medical school Ammann found his calling in immunology. He learned how the body responds to infection and how to develop vaccines to protect people.  "Immunology was just emerging at the time I was completing my pediatric training," Ammann recalls. In 1971, he became the first pediatric immunologist at the University of California in San Francisco.

Ammann develops effective pneumonia vaccine

In the early 1970's, he and his colleagues were the first to complete clinical trials that led to FDA approval for the pneumococcal vaccine against pneumonia. He still considers that his greatest achievement.

"The Gates foundation recently announced that they were donating $10 billion for vaccines, including a pneumococcal vaccine for children in poor countries," Amman says. "That's especially important now, as new, more dangerous flu strains emerge."

"With the flu epidemic, people don't always die of the flu, the virus," he says. "They die of bacterial infection which is the pneumococcal infection. It's very important in this influenza epidemic to get the pneumococcal immunization to prevent pneumonia."

A new killer disease emerges

By the early 1980's, Ammann's clinic had started seeing babies with compromised immune systems. He realized that their condition was similar to the mysterious and deadly disease that was destroying the immune systems of young gay men. Ammann worked with some of the finest minds in medicine to learn more about this acquired immune deficiency that became known as AIDS.

They soon learned that there was a much larger epidemic outside of the United States. "We began to get preliminary reports from developing countries. We realized what we seeing in the U.S. was just the tip of the iceberg," Ammann says.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) was identified in 1983 and a test for the virus in the blood was developed the next year. Since he had been successful at developing the pneumococcal vaccine, Ammann thought finding a vaccine for HIV would be a fairly uncomplicated process.
 
But by 1985, frustrated by a shortage of research funds, Amman left his secure university post to join the biotechnology firm Genentech, where ample research resources were available. Seven years of work led to five patents but failed to produce an HIV vaccine.

Ammann at work in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Ammann at work in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

A new strategy to fight HIV

"The virus has something about it where we cannot respond to it. Our bodies are not genetically endowed with the ability to develop an immune response to this," Ammann says. Still, he remains optimistic that a vaccine will eventually be developed. "I think what the virus is telling us, with all the vaccine studies that have failed, is that we need to approach it very differently."

One approach that has proven successful is treating HIV-positive mothers to prevent the transmission of the virus. Ammann discovered that if a pregnant woman is given anti-viral drugs, her baby is protected from contracting HIV. The anti-viral drugs are effective both in the womb and also during breast-feeding.

Ammann says statistics confirm the treatment's effectiveness in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. "In the United States, we've gone from thousands of cases of infected babies to fewer than 100. It's almost eradicated in the United States."

Ammann attributes many of the subsequent advances against AIDS to activists and advocates who demanded government funding for research and drugs to treat the disease.

Cradle of Hope is a Global Strategies program to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission in Ghana.
Cradle of Hope is a Global Strategies program to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission in Ghana.


Focusing on the developing world

As research brightened prospects for AIDS prevention and treatment in the United States, Ammann noticed the situation remained dire in developing nations. "The numbers we were getting from resource-poor countries were 1,600 babies infected every day. Every day. And that became for me another issue of justice and equity."

Unable to secure funding to address that inequity, Ammann, who had worked with two AIDS research foundations after leaving Genentech, established his own organization in 1999. His group, Global Strategies for HIV Prevention, immediately went to work in major cities in Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Tanzania, China and India, among others.

Ammann then turned his attention to rural communities, which were bearing the brunt of the epidemic often because of civil unrest or war.

"We've got to pay attention now even to these unstable areas that have very little infrastructure," Ammann says. Since it's nearly impossible to find doctors and nurses to train in those areas, Ammann recommends a different approach. "We have to train community workers, mid-level health care workers to do what is being done in other locations."

Looking ahead to new laws and new advances
 
Global Strategies has raised more than $22 million toward HIV prevention, trained about 5,500 health care workers and provided HIV testing kits or drugs to 85,000 women in poor countries. Now the non-profit has started to advocate in the countries where it operates for stricter laws to protect women and children who are most at risk for HIV.

Now 73, and retired from medical practice, Arthur Ammann remains active in the fight against AIDS.  He says he will keep going as long as he can because the need to protect women and children continues, because he finds the work rewarding and, he says, medical advances are too exciting for him to stop.

You May Like

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisisi
X
March 06, 2015 12:28 AM
There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisis

There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Growing Concerns Over Whether Myanmar’s Next Elections Will Be Fair

Myanmar has scheduled national elections for November that are also expected to include a landmark referendum on the country's constitution. But there are growing concerns over whether the government is taking the necessary steps to prepare for a free and fair vote. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was recently in Myanmar and files this report from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.
Video

Video Nigeria’s Ogonis Divided Over Resuming Oil Production

More than two decades ago, Nigeria’s Ogoni people forced Shell oil company to cease drilling on their land, saying it was polluting the environment. Now, some Ogonis say it’s time for the oil to flow once again. Chris Stein reports from Kegbara Dere, Nigeria.
Video

Video Winter Weather Strikes Eastern US...Again!

A new wintry blast has hit more than 20 states in the U.S. Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region, adding more snow to the piles from previous storms. Tired of shoveling snow, breaking the ice and dealing with accidents, flight delays and property damage, most Americans hope this is the last bout of cold for the season. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Myanmar's Traditional Fashion Choices Endure

The sartorial choices of Myanmar’s men and women quickly catch the eye of any visitor to the tropical Southeast Asian country. But at a time when Myanmar’s political and economic opening is bringing affordable western fashions to the masses, will the country’s unique fashion trends endure? VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Yangon explores that question.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More