Vaccine hope for AIDS sufferers

HOPE of a major breakthrough in the fight against HIV and AIDS has emerged after a US pharmaceutical company claimed it may produce a working vaccine within the next five years.

California-based VaxGen revealed that its vaccine could be in widespread use by 2007 - over five years earlier than originally anticipated.

Details of the new vaccine, known as Aidsvax, were released at the 14th International Aids Conference, which opened in Barcelona yesterday before 16,000 delegates from around the world. “Aidsvax has a strong safety profile and induces an immune response in nearly everyone who receives it,” said a company spokesperson. However, VaxGen stressed that the drug would only act as a vaccine to prevent people contracting HIV rather than curing those already infected.

Ann Nolan, executive director of Dublin AIDS Alliance, welcomed news of the trials on Aidsvax as a major development in the fight to reduce the number of new cases of HIV infection. “Such a vaccine has been long awaited and hopefully it will become primarily available to people in Africa,” said Ms Nolan.

In Ireland, 2,400 people, including 400 children, were recorded as having HIV infection last year. The total figure represents 0.1% of the country’s adult population. The number of newly diagnosed cases rose by nine to 299 last year.

Overall, there have been 365 AIDS-related deaths in Ireland since the first clinical evidence of HIV/AIDS was reported in 1981 with three recorded in 2001.

News of a possible breakthrough in the fight against AIDS came as a new UN report on the virus highlighted how HIV infection has reached epidemic levels in several parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in 10 adults are infected.

More than 40m people are infected with HIV worldwide, including 800,000 children. It is estimated that three million people died from an AIDS-related illness last year, despite major improvements in the efficacy of drugs used to treat HIV infection. A further 14m children have been orphaned as a result of the condition. The UN study also claims that 5m new cases of HIV infection were reported for the first time last year. The report itself says: “An unacceptable number of government and civil society institutions are still in a state of denial about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and are failing to act to prevent its further spread or alleviate its impact.” It also warns that a major health crisis is looming in sub-Saharan Africa where 28.5m people are infected with HIV. One of the biggest problem areas is South Africa where 5m people have HIV.

Human testing on Aidsvax, which is made from a synthetic protein, has been underway since 1992. Trials on the vaccine are in the final stages prior to Aidsvax being considered for licensing by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Preliminary results of the 36-month long trials are due to be released next year.

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