Mapping Pathways is a multi-national project to develop and nurture a research-driven, community-led global understanding of the emerging evidence base around the adoption of antiretroviral-based prevention strategies to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The evidence base is more than results from clinical trials - it must include stakeholder and community perspectives as well.

27 December 2011

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes: How do you measure a year?

Original content from the Mapping Pathways blog team

Another year winds down, and it is time to take stock, to reflect on all the moments that have made 2011 an important year for the HIV prevention community – and for all those of us who hope for and work toward the end of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The year began on a high note: the extremely encouraging results from the IPrEx and CAPRISA trials, announced in 2010, had us “jumping up and down” as Jim Pickett (Director of Prevention Advocacy and Gay Men's Health at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, chair of International Rectal Microbicide Advocates [IRMA], and a member of the Mapping Pathways team) says in his memorable interview, Success! Now What? These results were the long-awaited proof of concept for new prevention technologies – the “first real ‘win’” after many years of hard work.

The first bump in the road was the discontinuation of the FEM-PrEP trial in April due to futility, when the trial’s Independent Data Monitoring Committee concluded that the study would be highly unlikely to prove the effectiveness of Truvada in preventing HIV infection among the study population, i.e., HIV-negative women who are at risk of infection through sexual transmission.

The unexpected development had everyone expressing their opinions and wondering about the implications – after all, what does “futility” mean exactly? Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker (an expert in the field of biomedical trials and research) cautioned against knee-jerk reactions to the trial closure in her interview with Mapping Pathways: “Wait for the evidence, I think that is the message. Extrapolate at your peril. We know only what we know, and we need to just work within that.”

Then came the HPTN 052 results – and we were jumping with excitement again! The study demonstrated that initiation of ART by HIV-infected individuals substantially protected their HIV-uninfected sexual partners from acquiring HIV infection, with a 96 percent reduction in risk of HIV transmission. In an interview with Mapping Pathways, microbicides expert Joe Romano captured the overall sentiment, saying, “The level of efficacy seen in the HPTN052 study is stunning, and is extremely important on several fronts.”

There was good news for India (a Mapping Pathways target country) too: a UNAIDS report stated that the rate of new HIV infections fell by more than 50% in India between 2001 and 2009, double of the average decline in the world. The PrEP debate in India continued through the year. “There is a lot of concern in the country, especially with global funding not available right now,” explains Anjali Gopalan (Executive Director of NAZ India, a Mapping Pathways partner organization), in Notes from India: Concerns and Challenges Around PrEP. Mapping Pathways also published a short post on what we’ve been hearing in India so far.

Soon after the HPTN 052 results, the FACTS 001 trial was announced in South Africa – a follow-up study to confirm the effectiveness of tenofovir and to verify the CAPRISA 004 results in “larger, more diverse populations.”

Around this time, Mark Chataway (co-chairman of Baird’s CMC, a Mapping Pathways partner organization) was in South Africa (a Mapping Pathways target country). “My visit to the country once again brought into sharp focus for me just how significant South Africa and the rest of the southern African region are in the context of HIV treatment and prevention strategies,” writes Mark in his insightful post about South Africa and the HIV epidemic.

July brought bad news: the drought in the Horn of Africa began, bringing the region into international focus as an estimated 11.6 million people struggled for basic nutrition and sanitation in the humanitarian crisis – experts have warned that this situation could have a serious effect on the health of people undergoing HIV treatment.

Prevention trials continued to stay in the news. The Partners PrEP study and the TDF2 Botswana study both showed that taking antiretrovirals can reduce the risk of HIV infection through sexual intercourse by 62-73 percent among heterosexual individuals and heterosexual couples.

As heartening news continued to pour in, the UK’s House of Lords Select Committee on HIV & AIDS gave us another reason to celebrate as they called for greater emphasis and funding toward prevention. “Prevention must be the key policy,” remarked Lord Fowler, chairman of the committee.

In the US, dollars-and-cents issues remained a key factor. “The entire HIV prevention and treatment landscape overall is also in a state of flux in the US … When we get to the end of the day, there are good ideas, and then there are good ideas that are fully funded,” explains Julie Davids (Director of National Advocacy and Mobilization at AIDS Foundation of Chicago, a Mapping Pathways partner organization) in The Economic Effect: HIV/AIDS in the US.

October brought news that rekindled an old debate: the Lancet published the results of a study conducted in Africa, which seemed to suggest that hormonal methods of contraception could lead to increased risk of HIV infection. “Now whether this is a disaster or not, that needs to be considered very carefully in context. There are huge benefits, particularly in the African region, of avoiding an unwanted pregnancy, not only for the morbidity issues but also for mortality reasons … Firstly, we need to work out whether this result is true or not,” points out Dr. Tim Farley (an expert in HIV and sexual and reproductive health) in Hormonal Contraceptives and HIV Prevention: The Grey Area.

Recently, the VOICE trial hit a speed bump: the oral tenofovir arm and the tenofovir vaginal gel arm were dropped from the study. Both decisions were based on reviews of study data, which concluded that they would not be able to demonstrate effectiveness in preventing HIV among the women in the trial (although both products were found to be safe). The reasons for this are still unclear and will be fully investigated when the trial concludes in the middle of 20112. The study continues to examine the oral Truvada tablet to determine whether it’s effective in preventing HIV in the trial population.

A recent highlight was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on HIV/AIDS – one that earned her both bouquets and brickbats from the HIV prevention community. On the upside, Secretary Clinton focused on scientific evidence and called for immediate action to take advantage of the “historic opportunity” to create an “AIDS-free generation.” Unfortunately, she completely omitted any reference to PrEP and rectal microbicides. The speech also failed to mention gay and MSM populations, two groups that are experiencing catastrophic rates of HIV globally.

The year wound up with IRMA’s rectal microbicide African strategy meeting and the big ICASA conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December. (Click here and here to read about some of the important developments at these events.)

All in all, 2011 has been a dynamic year: lots of excellent news as well as some troubling developments. From the Mapping Pathways blog team, here’s to celebrating our achievements, learning from our failures, and working to address the challenges.

Happy New Year!

[Content that is linked from other sources is for informational purposes and should not construe a Mapping Pathways position.]

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