Two monumental pieces of news on AIDS hit the front pages of the New York Times today – both relating to prevention but in very different ways. First, Pope Benedict acknowledged that the need to prevent AIDS through use of condoms could outweigh the church’s longstanding opposition to this form of birth control. This is a huge step forward, particularly for the estimated 158 million Catholics in Africa, where AIDS has had the greatest impact and where the church has an enormous influence.
While in Africa, I met many in the Catholic Church fighting the epidemic against AIDS and they have felt hamstrung by the church’s lack of support for condoms. In Kenya, I became friends with a priest-turned-AIDS activist named Father Daniel Kiriti, who said he privately counsels young people on condom use but could not advocate it in large-scale settings because it was not officially sanctioned by the church. Now his Sunday sermons, which draw thousands, could be a platform for advocating this valuable form of HIV prevention.
The second piece of news came in the form of a study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that a single antiretroviral pill, taken faithfully, could prevent HIV as much as 90 percent of the time. The study involved nearly 2,500 men in six countries.
“Ninety percent effectiveness is really quite something,” Douglas Owens, MD, a professor of medicine at Stanford and an HIV policy researcher, told me. “That’s amazing.”
Owens noted that these results are even better than those that emerged this summer at the International AIDS Conference, where it was reported that women who used a microbicide gel before and after sex could reduce their chances of infection by 39 percent. Those results were greeted with great excitement in the AIDS community, as was the latest study.
The pill still has to be tested in other populations and could prove to be expensive, but it offers a very bright prospect indeed for an epidemic that seems otherwise unlikely to be controlled in the near future.