AVAC Report: HIV Prevention on the Line

February 19, 2015

AVAC’s annual report of the field, the upcoming CROI meeting and why the coming year is the best and worst of times for HIV prevention

Next week, scientists, advocates and clinicians will gather in Seattle for the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), a venerable HIV meeting that often triggers media coverage of the AIDS epidemic and the potential for curbing it and preserving health in people living with HIV.

A range of data is expected from CROI including “late-breaker” abstracts that will showcase data from IPERGAY and PROUD, two trials of oral PrEP using TDF/FTC in gay men and other men who have sex with men in Europe and Canada, and another trial of the microbicide 1% vaginal tenofovir gel in South African women. There will also be data from a PrEP “demonstration project” that provided the strategy in a real-life context for Kenyan and Ugandan couples with one HIV-positive and one HIV-negative partner.
We don’t know what the specific headlines will be, but we can say with confidence that one take-away must be this: The future of HIV prevention is on the line.

In our latest report, AVAC Report 2014/15: Prevention on the Line, we provide a clear agenda for what needs to happen, what’s missing, and why it matters now more than ever before.

Specifically, we argue that:

  • Ambitious prevention goals matter. They can galvanize new action, in part by expanding our sense of what’s possible.
  • But these goals will only work if they’re feasible, well-defined, measurable, and backed by adequate resources and political support. The prevention goals issued so far are inspiring but they don’t yet meet those requirements.
  • As the UNAIDS “Fast Track” for 2020 set aspirational goals, clear short-term targets are also urgently needed. We can’t wait for five years to see if the world is on track to end the AIDS epidemic.
  • The global AIDS response is running at a major financial deficit. New targets will not be met—and may even be irrelevant—if we fail to close a growing global funding gap.

Recent breakthroughs in HIV research have transformed the ability to curb new infections, making it possible to contemplate the end of the global AIDS epidemic. But prevention could be left behind if global leadership fails to make it a priority.

Recently, UNAIDS issued broad goals for HIV testing, ART provision and virologic suppression over the next five years. According to the agency, achieving these “90-90-90” goals would put the world on track to effectively end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

On the prevention front, UNAIDS seeks to reduce new infections worldwide from 2.1 million in 2013 to 500,000 in 2020, and to eliminate stigma and discrimination. These are ambitious goals and worth aspiring to. But something important is missing from the picture—intervention-specific targets with the specificity, strategy and resources to match. The goal is great. What’s missing is how to get there.

In twenty years, we will have ample hindsight as to whether today’s targets mattered in the quest to end AIDS.

But right now, foresight and focus are urgently required. We’re concerned about whether the targets that have been set are the right ones, how much targets matter—particularly in the context of a global response running at a disastrous funding deficit—and where prevention targets other than those focused on the antiretrovirals in HIV-positive individuals—fit in. We’re also cognizant that targets can turn from audacious to absurd in the blink of an eye if financing, political will and community buy-in are missing.

AVAC works in coalitions in many of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. Targets that are developed Geneva, Washington DC and other corridors of power can bear little resemblance to the realities of AIDS endemic countries and communities. Where there’s no reality, there’s no relevance. It’s essential that countries have the technical and financial resources to make global targets relevant to national context. Otherwise, the loftiest goals will be ignored.

As we argue in this Report, targets have played a critical role in changing the course of the epidemic. Likewise, a poorly-thought out target can have no impact at all. Right now, it’s critical that targets and tactics are matched to the lofty but achievable goal of bringing an end to AIDS. This is why we’ve devoted the first section of the Report to a look at why targets matter, what targets are missing, and how advocates for a comprehensive response need to work together to ensure smart, strategic targets across the spectrum of prevention options.

We also focus on issues that underpin (and, sometimes, undermine) the ability to meet these targets. We identify three specific areas for action:

  • Align high impact strategies with human rights and realities. Biomedical advances of the past eight years have made it scientifically plausible to talk about ending the epidemic. But plausible doesn’t mean possible. Today some scientists and public health professionals are focused on what can be achieved biomedically—without enough attention to the structural and social contexts in which treatment prevention are delivered. At the same time, some rights-focused partners speak of HIV as being exclusively pill-oriented, suggesting that there isn’t any dynamism or action on the rights-based fronts. It need not be a permanent rift—indeed it cannot be. If science does not get synched up with human rights then then there is little hope of bringing the epidemic to a conclusive end.
  • Invest in an oral PrEP-driven paradigm shift. The world is failing to deliver the most effective interventions with smart strategy and at scale. Daily oral PrEP for HIV prevention is just one example. Global targets for PrEP may be released in the coming months, but there aren’t any plans in place to meet them. Demonstration projects are small and disconnected, funding is limited and policy makers aren’t heeding the growing demand from men and women, including young women in Africa. Now is the time to spend and act to fill these gaps.
  • Demand short-term results on the path to long-term goals. It will be years before the world has an AIDS vaccine, cure strategies, long-acting injectable ARVs or multipurpose prevention technologies that reduce the risk of HIV acquisition and provide contraception. But there’s plenty of activity in clinical trials and basic science for these long-term goals. This activity needs to be aligned with short-term goals that can be used to measure progress and manage expectations.

As AVAC Report goes to press this week and as we prepare for CROI next week, the United States is grappling with profound questions about the ways that the lives of Black men and women are valued under the law. The world is trying to understand how the West African Ebola epidemics got out of control—and how to bring them to an end. And there is continued concern and vigilance over anti-homosexuality laws in Nigeria and the Gambia, and in hate-mongering environments and legislation that endanger LGBT individuals and many other marginalized groups around the world.

These events are not separate from the work that we do to fight AIDS. They embody the issues of racism, inequity, poverty and security that drive the epidemic that must be addressed to end it. In addition to the HIV-specific work laid out in these pages, it is essential to work towards fundamental, lasting and positive change in each of these areas. That will be history-making, indeed.