Research: Pill May Prevent HIV Infection

It's World AIDS Day, and it's been nearly 30 years since the U.S. government first linked the disease to blood. So far, about 30 million people have died of HIV. Along with the terrible numbers, there is some positive research news. A study indicates a pill has been successful in preventing HIV in a group of high-risk men.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This day is World AIDS Day. We're also about three decades - within a few months of three decades - of the time when the U.S. government first used the term AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. In those less than 30 years, 30 million people have died of the disease. But NPR's Richard Knox is here to tell us that there's also some good news along with those terrible numbers.

Hi, Richard.

RICHARD KNOX: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the good news?

KNOX: Well, just last week, government researchers announced results of a big project involving 2,500 men in six countries that took a pill - that's actually two drugs that are used to treat AIDS. And they used it to prevent it, and it worked. These were men who are at high risk for getting HIV; they're men who have sex with men. And over the course of the study, which is a couple years, about 44 percent fewer infections were seen among the men who took the pill.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I'm clear on this. You're not saying this is an AIDS vaccine, but it is a treatment that is prophylactic. It seems to be preventing people from getting infected in the first place. Is that right?

KNOX: That's right. It's the first time that anybody has shown that a pill can prevent sexual transmission of HIV.

INSKEEP: So how has this changed the debate over AIDS and the effort to fight AIDS?

KNOX: I think it's really increased people's optimism that there's some new, preventative things that can work. It comes on the heels of another interesting study. Earlier this year, there was a study that showed women who used a gel that can kill HIV - and thus, protect them from getting it during sexual transmission - it reduced their infection rate about 40 percent, which is modest. But it's the first time anybody's shown that that's possible.

INSKEEP: Although we still have millions of people dying here. What is preventing some of these treatments - that are being developed over time - from spreading widely enough that they would massively affect the numbers of infections and eventually, the numbers of deaths?

KNOX: It's beginning to happen, largely because more treatment is getting out there. Fewer people are dying - about 20 percent fewer than in 2004 - fewer people are passing on the virus to others. But meanwhile, for every person who's put on treatment, two more people are getting infected. There's just so much of it out there.

INSKEEP: What happens to the efforts to treat large numbers of people when there is economic trouble, as there - obviously - is right now?

KNOX: It doesn't look good because of the global recession. The global fund for AIDS, malaria and TB - which is one of the big sources of treatment funding; donor countries contribute to it - they got, in pledges this year, far less than they feel they need to sustain the effort.

INSKEEP: Well, what happens in the United States when you have fewer people working, and fewer people with health insurance?

KNOX: Well, there are programs that pay for AIDS treatment. There are longer waiting lists than there used to be. You know, states that are hard-pressed are not keeping up with the demand. And there's something like 57,000 new infections in this country every year. So you know, the demand for treatment is going to grow.

INSKEEP: Is this getting to the point where you have a disease that can be prevented and can be treated - does not at all need to be fatal - for years and years and years, if you just have the financing, if you just have the money?

KNOX: That's the main issue, as always, but it's not the only one. I mean, it's amazing that people have done as well as they have in many countries that are very poor. And I think that gives some people some real optimism that if the funding is there, then it is possible to prevent people from dying, prevent more people from getting infected. But clearly, the emphasis going forward has got to be on better and more widespread prevention efforts, because the treatment is always going to lag behind new infections.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Knox on this World AIDS Day. Richard, thanks very much.

KNOX: You're welcome.

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