…World AIDS Day was marked around the globe Thursday.
About 40 million people worldwide are now infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. About 3 million of them are expected to die of AIDS this year.—CNN 12/1/05
Over ten years ago one of the brightest immunologists on the planet told me there would never be a vaccine for AIDS. I’m no fan of vaccines for many reasons, not the least of which is that they cause untold physical damage despite whatever help they may offer. However, I was intrigued by this learned person’s blanket statement, since he was in the business of research into the human immune system, and vaccines were a part of his study.
He made it very simple for my lay understanding of immunity, germs, and AIDS. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome—AIDS—is the breakdown of the immune system’s ability to produce the various factors for antibodies which fight germs that humans are exposed to, serious and common, lethal and annoying, every day all our lives. This “deficiency” opens the body to sickness, complications, and ultimately, death.
Vaccines introduce toxins into the human immune system, usually in an altered form from the original germ so as not to cause the illness, in order to “trick” the system into producing the appropriate antibodies to fight the real germ if ever exposed to it. That’s the theory at least. The immunologist explained to me that since AIDS is the lack of immunity, a vaccine to mimic the mechanism that caused that lack would be almost the logical opposite of what a vaccine is supposed to do, which definitely is not to cause a lack of immunity. The assumption that HIV virus is the cause of AIDS is also not so straightforward, he explained. Therefore, developing a vaccine to protect against getting the HIV virus would not necessarily work in a one-to-one causal reaction.
My next question was what could be done on a general health care level to protect against the complications of AIDS if there could be no vaccine, and as yet there is no cure? He said there would be developments through the years that would reduce the effect of having AIDS on the system that would make the individual virtually “cured,” if not actually free from the disease itself. He said it would be like having a cancer that was in total remission. But he insisted there probably would be no cure, and certainly no vaccine, for AIDS. His remission scenario carried great hope in that light.
Now when I see the media hyping progress towards an AIDS vaccine, I wonder who gets the positive benefit from this kind of empty PR. Pharmaceutical companies looking for grants—half of their R & D money comes from government grants—could get a boost from the notion of a lead to a vaccine for AIDS. And it gives the press something to talk about.
The development of ways to diminish the effects of AIDS is a more likely road to helping millions of people afflicted by this grave disease, based on my immunologist-friend’s discussion. That methodology doesn’t sell newspapers, and it doesn’t boost the bottom line of big pharma.
But it’s the truth.