Does a pill a day keep HIV away?

Published: November 16, 2011

Despite our best attempts over the last 30 years, the HIV epidemic continues unabated. There are 1.2 million identified infections in the United States, with another several hundred thousand likely undiagnosed. The impact of this ongoing health challenge is noted most dramatically and definitively evidenced among gay men, who represent somewhere in the vicinity of two to five percent of the population — but constitute 50 percent of all AIDS-related deaths, over 50 percent of all infections and over 50 percent of newly diagnosed infections.

With millions and millions of dollars spent on HIV prevention and research — and despite the best attempts of behavioral researchers and leading AIDS service organizations to modify our risk behaviors — the epidemic continues. Initial campaigns focusing on using a condom have, over time, morphed into programs underscoring the importance of efficacy, temptation and motivation to help shape behavior. But the infections continue to spread. So what has gone wrong?

Some, including myself at times, have pointed the finger at behavioral change programs that are overly simplistic, focusing on sex as an act free of emotion or passion (and in many cases, drugs). But sex is more than simple logic, or rational decision-making. Many behavioral programs have oversimplified a very complex behavior — and the programs we have developed or the research we have enacted has ultimately failed to translate to real lives. I often wonder if the folks developing these programs actually have sex themselves.

Some may argue that we have contained the disease. But how true is that when young gay men, especially Blacks and Latinos, are seroconverting at such high rates? Even among White men, there is an uptick in the incidence of new infections as this group navigates its 30s. We simply haven’t gotten it right.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might beg to differ. For the last several years they have documented programs they refer to as DEBIS (Demonstrated Effective Behavioral Interventions) — which have demonstrated some feasibility in research trails for changing risk behaviors. Small subsets of these were developed for gay men. At a lunch a few years ago, a colleague asked me, “What do you think is the best DEBIS?” My answer was quite simply, “None of them. We still have an HIV epidemic, so nothing is clearly working that well.” For me, these interventions are like a topical ointment or a Band-Aid used to treat a deep skin infection — when what is really needed is a powerful oral antibiotic.

With no effective behavioral change programs in sight, newly developed and tested biomedical interventions have captured the attention of the public, of our leading community-based agencies and of policy makers at all levels of government.

These biomedical interventions have taken many forms, but three have garnered the most attention. The HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) 052 study has shown that treating HIV-positive individuals with antiviral treatments reduces the transmission of HIV to their sexual trails. The CAPRISA trial has demonstrated the efficacy of a Tenofovir gel (Tenofovir, also known as Truvada, an HIV antiviral medication) may reduce the acquisition of HIV by women form their sexual partners. And for gay men, the iPrEx trial has clearly indicated the protective effects of a once a day dose of Tenofovir in prevention the acquisition of HIV.

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