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.

21 December 2011

Pause and Rewind with Jim Pickett: Triumphs and Trials in 2011

Original content from the Mapping Pathways blog team

“PrEP … is hard as hell to figure out. Hard as hell. But that’s what we have to do – we have to be right there, at the hardest place possible, trying to get the answers.”

MP: Was 2011 a significant year with regard to new HIV prevention methods?

JP: Definitely. I think it’s been a really dynamic year. The discussion around ARV-based prevention has been heated, it’s been passionate, and it’s been very broad. The field as a whole has received so much attention this year because of all the studies that were reported, beginning in 2010. The lively discussion has put the research and advocacy that’s been ongoing for years on so many people’s radar for the first time.

MP: What were some of the biggest highlights in the prevention landscape this past year?

JP: In terms of the actual science that was reported out this year, a couple of studies were really important. The HPTN 052 trial proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that providing treatment to people can be very effective as a means of prevention as well as for treating the individual with HIV. It was something we all pretty much knew but we didn’t have a randomized controlled trial to prove it. Now we have one – and that’s really powerful.

There have also been significant results on the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in heterosexual individuals. The Partners PrEP study and the TDF2 Botswana study have brought further proof that oral prevention – taking a pill every day – can work to prevent HIV, and can work quite well.

On the other side, we’ve had some confounding results as well. The FEM-PrEP trial closure, due to the fact it was unable to prove the effectiveness of Truvada in preventing HIV infection among HIV-negative women, has left us scratching our heads. The VOICE trial, which is investigating both microbicides and PrEP, had to close the tenofovir gel and pill arms due to futility – they weren’t going to be able to show these interventions work to prevent HIV.

We’ve come up against ‘futility’, and now there’s a huge question mark. We don’t yet know what is going on: Was it something biological? Was it because adherence was poor? Why did these products work in other trials? While there have been very encouraging results about PrEP, the jury is still out – for instance, is this a good intervention for heterosexuals, especially women? Both PrEP trials that have shown futility have been for women. These critical questions need to be addressed.

MP: What has the debate around PrEP been like? What are people saying?

JP: Like I mentioned, the debate around ARVs as prevention has been very dynamic. Wherever you are on the analysis of these new strategies, whether you are critical of these or really excited about them, much of the discussion has been fruitful and invigorating.

What has upset me, though, is that some people (whether they’re researchers, advocates, public health workers, or policymakers) have been drawing lines and pitting interventions against one other. For instance, PrEP, ARVs for HIV-negative people to prevent HIV acquisition, is being pitted against treatment, ARVs for HIV-positive people. There’s been a lot of discussion on who “deserves” the drugs and who doesn’t – I don’t think that’s helpful in any way. We should all be working to get ARVs to those who need them – HIV-positive people, of course, and also HIV-negative individuals who need them, can use them, and would find them very beneficial. It’s about ARV access writ large.

MP: Why do you think this has happened?

JP: This is what happens in times of scarcity and economic trauma. People say, “We can’t possibly do everything, so we should do only this and not that.” It’s not surprising, but it’s still disheartening. We need to think broadly, globally and not dismiss new interventions because they’re challenging or bring up lots of questions. PrEP does bring a ton of issues: It’s brand new, it’s just out of the box, we’ve never done this before, and it’s hard as hell to figure out. Hard as hell. But that’s what we have to do – we have to be right there, at the hardest place possible, trying to get the answers. That’s where we should be spending our energy.

When the female condom was first introduced, it wasn’t given the attention and support it needed and a lot of people dismissed it. I think that really hobbled its potential for a long time. I don’t want to see PrEP in the same place – being disparaged before we’ve had a chance to explore and fully understand its potential.

MP: How can the Mapping Pathways project help in this context?

JP: The Mapping Pathways project will be offering a synthesis of literature, real-world experience, and key stakeholder opinions from vastly different perspectives and regions of the world. This is going to be extremely helpful because we know that just having great science isn’t going to get any of these interventions rolling. This project is helping create and disseminate information that countries, regions, states, and cities can use to make informed decisions about how they engage with these new prevention technologies – or not. I think the key word here is “informed”. What we’re all hoping is that these decisions are made based on a combination of science, feasibility, and acceptability in each region.

The fact that we’re going to be able to play a role in that process is very exciting. Wearing my Mapping Pathways hat, I’m really proud of the work we’ve done this year. The first wave of data collection is done – we’re now analyzing our literature review, our survey results and stakeholder interviews, and results from our ExpertLens process. I’m very excited about the data and analysis that we’ve been able to pull together as a multinational team. And now we get to start sharing these great insights with the world!

Jim Pickett is the Director of Prevention Advocacy and Gay Men's Health at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. He is chair of IRMA (International Rectal Microbicide Advocates), and a member of the Mapping Pathways team.

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

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