Policymakers from seven developing countries where AIDS is a serious threat say work on a vaccine for the deadly virus must be accelerated. But participants in the two-day conference also emphasized there must be greater government involvement in efforts to slow the spread of the disease.
The two-day conference was organized by several non-governmental groups, including the New York-based International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. Delegates from India, Kenya, Thailand, China, Nepal, Brazil, and Uganda took part in the meeting.
The president of the group, Seth Berkley, says a vaccine is the only way to end the AIDS epidemic that has devastated tens of thousands of families in several Asian and African countries. He says a number of drug companies, governments and his own group are currently involved in the effort, and initial results have been encouraging.
But Dr. Berkley says the challenge is not merely to produce a vaccine for AIDS, but to make sure it reaches those developing countries, which are facing the brunt of the epidemic. "The signs are quite hopeful that we will have a vaccine that works," he observed. "Most scientists agree now that it is possible to get a vaccine, so we have to really drive forward, getting a vaccine. Secondarily, we have to begin preparing for success. We have to begin to set the systems up that will make sure the vaccine is made available to all those who need it, without delay. That includes financing, manufacturing, that includes delivery systems for the people who are at risk, and this would have to be an unprecedented effort to do it before the vaccine is actually made."
Most policymakers welcomed the efforts to produce a vaccine. But campaigners involved with combating the spread of AIDS stressed that the battle against the disease must be stepped-up on a variety of fronts - promoting education about how the virus is spread, overcoming prejudice against AIDS victims, and making drugs available at a lower cost.
A senator from Thailand, Jon Ungphakorn, has worked extensively on AIDS prevention in his country. He cautions that even if a vaccine is produced in the future, governments and people must not become complacent. "It's important, when and if the vaccines are given out, not to give the false confidence to people that, now they have got the vaccine, they can go out and take risks with unprotected sex," he said. "So, we need to very much continue with what is called the social vaccine. We need to promote behavior change, so that people know how to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS, even without the vaccine."
The Director of the National AIDS Commission in Kenya, M.S. Abdullah, urged health policy-makers and parliamentarians in Africa to become more closely involved with the effort to slow the spread of the disease. "One of the biggest challenges is the political commitment," he said. "because many countries still have not committed as yet to this battle at government level, and therefore you find that if you do not have the political commitment, then it becomes very difficult to tackle the issue.
Delegates at the conference stressed that the battle against AIDS cannot be won without broader political support, and urged policymakers to become more closely involved, starting from the federal level, and going down to village communities.