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HIV in focus

EVERY minute, six people are infected with HIV - the Human Immunodeficiency Virus that causes AIDS. (See

And in the 28 years since scientists identified the virus, it has become one of the most devastating pandemics ever recorded in human history.

With more than 25 million lives lost since 1981, the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial, which will be observed in about 115 countries worldwide today, is among the oldest campaigns held to mobilise and raise awareness of HIV/AIDS.

The memorial, which is a programme of the Global Health Council, was first started in 1983 and takes place every third Sunday in May to honour those who have died from HIV/AIDS and raise social consciousness about the disease. (See

In its report on the global AIDS Epidemic 2008, UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) estimates that some 33 million people were living with HIV in 2007. (See

“There were 2.7 million new HIV infections and 2 million AIDS-related deaths last year (2007).

“The rate of new HIV infections has fallen in several countries, but globally these favourable trends are at least partially offset by increases in new infections in other countries.

“Globally, women account for half of all HIV infections - this percentage has remained stable for the past several years.

“In virtually all regions outside sub-Saharan Africa, HIV disproportionately affects people who inject drugs, and men who have sex with men and sex workers,” the report adds.

AVERT, the international AIDS charity, reveals that people under the age of 25 account for half of all new HIV infections worldwide. (See

“Africa alone has 11.6 million AIDS orphans. The overwhelming majority of people with HIV, some 95% of the global total, live in the developing world. The proportion is set to grow even further as infection rates continue to rise in countries where poverty, poor health care systems and limited resources for prevention and care fuel the spread of the virus,” it adds.

With no cure currently available, the only hope those with HIV have now is anti-retroviral drug treatment or combination therapy, which is the taking of two or more anti-retroviral drugs at a time.

According to the Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2008, the number of new HIV infections continues to outstrip the advances made in treatment numbers - for every two people put on anti-retroviral drugs, another five become newly infected.

“The cost of providing HIV treatment will continue to increase – as some of those on treatment currently need to access second and third line treatment regimens,” it adds.

According to, 30 medications have been approved by the US government to fight HIV, with many more in development.

HIV medications fall into several groups, or “classes.” Each class attacks HIV a little differently, and has diverse risks and benefits.

“No single drug taken alone is effective. But when several medications (usually three) are taken in combination, they can control the quantity of virus in your body and maintain the health of your immune system. This combination is called Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy, or HAART,” it adds.

The site list five types or “classes” of HIV medication:

* NRTIs (nucleoside or nucleotide reverse transcriptase inhibitors),

* NNRTIs (non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors),

* PIs (protease inhibitors),

* Entry inhibitors, and

* Integrase inhibitors

“All five classes of medications have been designed to interfere with HIV’s ability to copy itself - that is, to reproduce inside your body. Each class of medication stops the virus at a different moment in its reproductive cycle.

“Think of HIV as a breeding factory set up inside a ‘T’ cell. All it wants to do is grow inside of you and make duplicates of itself.

“NRTIs act like broken building blocks so that the factory HIV tries to build in your ‘T’ cells is made with broken bricks.

“NNRTIs act like bad supervisors who give the wrong instructions to HIV during the building process.

“Protease inhibitors act like workers who put defective parts in each new virus being built on the factory’s assembly line.

“Fusion inhibitors act like locks on the factory door that prevent HIV from getting inside,” it adds.

The Holy Grail for HIV/AIDS researchers is coming up with a vaccine against the virus.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) says a “vaccine with only 30% efficacy and 20% coverage could avert 5.5 million infections by 2015”.

“While there will never be a single solution to HIV and AIDS, we know from history that no major viral epidemic has ever been defeated without a vaccine,” it adds.

However, with a vaccine yet to be developed, the disease remains the fourth leading cause of deaths globally and a virulent threat to mankind.

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