In the early 1980s, as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) began sweeping the world, Dr Suniti Solomon, a Chennai-based microbiologist, knew it was just a matter of time before the epidemic would reach India. As the world’s second-largest populated country, and one with correspondingly low healthcare spending and poor awareness, India was extremely vulnerable. In 1986, her fears were realised when she discovered the infection in the blood samples of sex workers in Chennai.
HIV is one of the most complex health problems mankind has ever faced. The virus mutates three to seven times faster than any other known biological entity. It hides itself from the immune system, and attacks the cells that protect us from infection. However, concerted efforts by the global scientific and health community towards promoting awareness and use of condom and anti-retroviral therapy (ART) have helped slow down its spread in recent years. Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence, but the end of the epidemic and its devastating impact is far from over.
A new report published this month by the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon warns that gains against HIV could be lost if action does not accelerate over the next five years. It urges countries to react by front-loading investments and increasing preventive action.
As with any infectious disease, the solution lies in improving our understanding of the disease and its mechanisms of spread in the body. Also, gathering the natural immune responses that a few individuals have demonstrated against the virus could hold the key to a vaccine to end Aids.
Africa and India together share over three-quarters of the global HIV burden.
However, to ensure that a vaccine is locally-relevant, effective, and accessible to the populations at risk, it is imperative that its design and development be led by the countries most affected by the disease. The good news is that India has emerged as a global leader in health science, technology and biomedical innovation. Our scientific prowess and enhanced research capabilities have positioned us as a global incubator for innovative disease-prevention technologies in genomics, bioinformatics, deep sequencing, and big data analysis.
India is determined to play a pivotal role in the discovery and development of an HIV vaccine. We are working on creating nationwide adult and pediatric cohorts, and a national biorepository to store blood and tissue samples covering various stages of infection. Towards furthering South-South cooperation, comparative research studies with African nations are being scaled up. India is also leading several capacity-building initiatives to empower young scientists and boost the proficiency of African health research institutions, labs, and universities to contribute to global research efforts towards ending Aids. This has put India on the global scientific research map.
On this HIV Vaccine Awareness Day, we have to recognise the many scientists, health professionals and community members at home and abroad who are working to discover an HIV vaccine. Their efforts will continue to benefit public health goals and the global development agenda.
Rajat Goyal is country director, International Aids Vaccine Initiative
The views expressed are personal