New AIDS drugs no panacea for epidemic

Excitement surrounding an innovative AIDS treatment is raising hopes that researchers are close to discovering a cure for the killer virus. A potent combination of drugs that work together to diminish the amount of HIV in the bloodstream has reportedly rejuvenated deathly ill AIDS patients, prematurely sparking speculation that a remedy may be only a few years away.
Researchers meeting at the 11th Annual AIDS Conference in Vancouver, Canada, this week focused the international spotlight on a new class of drugs known as protease inhibitors. Used in combination with other drugs that attack HIV, the inhibitors stop the virus from reproducing in the blood of some AIDS patients.
A burgeoning sense of unprecedented hope among physicians, as well as patients and their loved ones, is understandable. The multi-drug treatment could provide longer and more vigorous lives for many people struggling against the virus. Nevertheless, too many AIDS patients, activists and pseudo-medical experts in the media are overreacting to the finding. Outlandish claims that AIDS will soon be as treatable as diabetes and high blood pressure are dangerous and counterproductive. Most researchers concede that HIV may develop strains that elude the new treatment.
Even if the antidote works as well as patients hope, it will do little to help the world’s predominantly poor HIV-infected populations. Coming up with the $10,000 to $15,000 annual cost for the drugs is inconceivable for more than 90 percent of the people suffering from AIDS- and HIV-related illnesses. Physicians at the Vancouver conference, moreover, were quick to caution that drug treatments devised in the Western world are no match for the very different strains of HIV that infect people in developing nations.
More than 22 million people worldwide are infected with the AIDS virus. Sub-Saharan African countries, where the virus continues to spread at startling rates, are home to at least two-thirds of all infections. Each day there are an estimated 8,500 new cases, including 1,000 children. Most of the new infections arise in poverty-stricken developing nations such as India, Uganda and Thailand. Whereas homosexual sex and shared needles remain the primary mechanisms for contracting AIDS in the United States and other Western nations, heterosexual behavior is responsible for most of the infections contracted in developing countries. More women than men are infected with the virus in some developing countries, where public health officials say engaging in any kind of sexual activity is life-threatening.
Despite the desperate need for forceful treatments in developing nations, the Western medical establishment continues to concentrate research almost exclusively on HIV strains that infect the Western world. While the apparent success of the multi-drug treatment offers the Western world a burst of hopeful optimism, more compassion and concern over the death and disillusionment tearing through developing nations ought to be included in AIDS research. The new drug treatments are limited both in their ability to overcome HIV strains in developing nations and in their accessibility to AIDS patients worldwide.