The HIV message you may have missed at the NYC Global Citizen Festival

The message about the progress of AIDS research and testing from Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical company and popular drugstore brand that was a major sponsor of the Global Citizen Festival event alongside YouTube, got lost in the scramble when the audience ran for cover. Researchers were interrupted just after they flashed peace signs with their fingers held high toward the crowd and said, “Let’s make HIV history.”

Dr. Paul Stoffles, an executive and chief scientific officer from the company’s South African research arm, and Glenda Gray, the president and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council, said that researchers have made incredible progress toward finding a drug to combat the disease.

Dr. Stoffels announced that, “Large-scale testing of the HIV vaccine is now underway in five African countries, including South Africa.” Along with frontline workers and their partners, they said, what seemed like only hope 30 years ago has turned into a promise, and a pledge they made last year toward making HIV history is closer than ever to becoming a reality.

In addition to HIV drugs, Johnson & Johnson makes consumer health and skincare products from Aveeno, Neutrogena, Roc, a host of recognizable brand names such as Tylenol, Band-Aid, their traditional baby care line, to surgical instruments and medication for treating Alzheimer’s, cancer, tuberculosis (TB), mental illness, and diabetes. As health partner for Global Citizen, the company’s mission is in line with the festival’s, which is to do good by improving the lives of people around the world.

In an interview with Camille Chatterjee before the show, Dr. Stoffels talks about his work on the frontlines, in a clinic in Africa, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In those days, he said, “the life expectancy of an HIV patient was just six months. Today, we are closing in on providing patients a near-normal life expectancy—people are now surviving 30 to 40 years after diagnosis.”

By taking their medication every day, HIV patients can stay healthy for the rest of their lives, but the challenge is finding a way to get the medication to them, and to develop more simplified therapies that are easier to stick to over time.

“So we’re now working with partners on developing a long-acting injectable treatment that would mean patients could take just one injection a month,” said Dr. Stoffels.

“What we really need, though, is a vaccine to prevent HIV in the first place,” he adds. “So we are working with many partners to conduct Imbokodo, the first efficacy study for a mosaic-based vaccine designed to prevent a wide range of viral strains responsible for the HIV pandemic.”

Dr. Stoffels first announced the trial of the HIV vaccine at the Global Citizen Festival in New York City last year. Since then he’s been back to the Imbokodo study site a few times. They’ve reached the goal of getting 25 per cent, or over 650 of the 2600 young women they need to enrol in the study.

The disease continues to spread. In 2016 there were 1.8 million new HIV infections worldwide, with 43 per cent of those cases in eastern and southern Africa. A disproportionate majority of those affected are women and girls. 

The Global Citizen Festival will be hosted by South Africa in December 2018 as they do their part to bring awareness to issues related to social inequality around the world.

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