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HIV and AIDS

AIDS experts convene ahead of World AIDS Day

12 years, 6 months ago

1587  0
Posted on Nov 30, 2006, 6 a.m. By Bill Freeman

With almost 25 million Africans infected with HIV -- 2.8 million new infections last year and 2.1 million deaths -- the statistics are as grim as ever as Africa readies for World AIDS Day on December 1. But after years of negative news, African health experts hope that at long last there may be a simple step doctors can take to fight the epidemic -- male circumcision. "This would be the first intervention shown by the highest levels of science to prevent HIV infection," Dr. Daniel Halperin, an AIDS expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, told a U.N. AIDS seminar in Maputo, Mozambique's capital.

With almost 25 million Africans infected with HIV -- 2.8 million new infections last year and 2.1 million deaths -- the statistics are as grim as ever as Africa readies for World AIDS Day on December 1. But after years of negative news, African health experts hope that at long last there may be a simple step doctors can take to fight the epidemic -- male circumcision.

"This would be the first intervention shown by the highest levels of science to prevent HIV infection," Dr. Daniel Halperin, an AIDS expert at the Harvard School of Public Health, told a U.N. AIDS seminar in Maputo, Mozambique's capital.

"We're not saying don't do condoms. But there is a missing element, and part of that appears to be circumcision."

The rising interest in circumcision as a tool against AIDS is based primarily on one study conducted in Orange Farm, a poor township outside Johannesburg, that found circumcised men were about 60 percent less likely to contract HIV.

Doctors say the most likely explanation is that cells on the inside of the foreskin, the part of the penis removed in circumcision, are particularly susceptible to HIV infection.

The Orange Farm study was so conclusive that it was halted ahead of time and all participants offered circumcision on the grounds that it would be unethical to deny them surgery which could save their lives.

Two more studies are now under way in Kenya and Uganda. Officials say they may stop as early as December if early results are as persuasive as those from Orange Farm.

UNAIDS, the United Nations organization devoted to the global fight against AIDS, says publicly it must await the results of the two studies before launching a campaign to promote circumcision among African men.

But U.N. officials are laying the groundwork for just such a campaign, quizzing African doctors and government officials on exactly what would be needed to roll out a major drive on male circumcision across the continent.

MIXED MESSAGES?

On the surface, male circumcision would appear to be an almost tailor-made defense against Africa's AIDS pandemic: a cheap, simple one-off surgery which makes it more difficult to contract and pass on HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.

A World Health Organization study said circumcision could prevent nearly 6 million new HIV infections and save 3 million lives in sub-Saharan Africa over the next 20 years -- making it one of the most promising interventions against a disease for which there remains no cure and no imminent hope of a vaccine.

African officials hope circumcision may help stop new infections, which continue to outpace the delivery of anti-retroviral drugs that remain expensive and difficult to monitor despite their growing use across Africa.

"Treatment has arrived. But treatment is not sustainable unless we can halt new infections," said Innocent Modisaotsile, who coordinates HIV/AIDS work for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) secretariat.

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