AIDS Journalists Discuss AIDS Vaccines, South Africa on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’
AIDS reporter Jon Cohen, author of "Shots in the Dark: The Wayward Search for an AIDS Vaccine," and South African journalist and anti-rape activist Charlene Smith joined Terry Gross as guests on NPR's "Fresh Air" yesterday to discuss AIDS-related issues. Cohen called on the international medical community to "organize a master monkey trial" to standardize vaccine research, saying that it is not currently possible to compare results of vaccine tests done on monkeys -- the primary vehicle for such testing -- across labs because there is no consistency in virus strains used or in how the vaccines are administered to animals. Cohen said, "Drugs aren't going to stop the epidemic ... We know that vaccines are the most powerful medical intervention, other than cleaning the water, that we have ever come up with as humans." He added that he is "amused at how vaccines take a back-seat" to drug treatment when researchers could "create great good without having a great vaccine," explaining that "if you have a mediocre AIDS vaccine right now that works 60% of the time ... it will do more good down the road than a 90% effective vaccine introduced five years later." When asked why it is so much harder to find an AIDS vaccine than it was to find the smallpox or polio vaccines, Cohen responded that "antibodies clearly protect people from polio virus. With HIV, no one knows what exactly protects people from [the virus]." In addition, Cohen said that pharmaceutical companies have more incentive to find new AIDS drugs than vaccines, since drugs are more lucrative.
Rape and HIV in South Africa
Smith, who became an activist after she was raped in South Africa in 1999, spoke about her difficulty after the incident in obtaining drugs that could decrease her chances of contracting HIV from her assailant. Smith's experience prompted her to spread awareness about HIV and rape in South Africa and to push for legal and medical reforms. According to Smith, girls aged 13-19 have the highest rate of HIV infection in South Africa. She noted that in addition to a high rape rate overall, the rape of virgins in South Africa is an "unimaginable problem" because of the myth that such action allows men to "cleanse" themselves of HIV. Smith said a belief also exists that men can cleanse themselves of HIV through intercourse with elderly women, which has resulted in many gang rapes. Smith said that "every government in this region knows that it is happening, and is not doing anything to stop it." She added that there is "still not good enough treatment" for women who are raped, although some medical centers provide free testing, counseling, and anti-HIV drugs. Smith said she is optimistic about potential new laws that would require that rapists be tested for HIV and that their victims be informed of the results. Smith's book, "Proud of Me: Speaking Out Against Sexual Violence and HIV," will be published in South Africa in August (Gross, "Fresh Air," NPR, 6/21). To listen to the "Fresh Air" report in RealAudio, click here. Please note this link is available to Web readers only, and you will need RealPlayer to access it.