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The GAIA Vaccine Foundation puts a face behind the numbers

December 29, 2011

KINGSTON—It is difficult for local communities, where successful healthcare and access to up-to-date medicines are common, to comprehend the daily struggle of men and women who are threatened by the HIV/AIDS virus. When speaking with members of the public about this global epidemic, Dr. Annie DeGroot, Director of the Institute for Immunology and Information at the University of Rhode Island, can provide statistics, yet does not believe such an approach is effective.

“I think we need to tell the stories, those about the 11 year old girl that I have come to know in Mali,” said DeGroot. “She’s HIV infected, the daughter of one of my patients, and has been so since birth. Kyra, which is not her real name, takes her medications and she’s doing well at school. I don’t know what’s going to happen to her if my organization doesn’t’ keep on providing access to HIV/AIDS care in Mali. I worry about her every day.”

“Maybe the folks who live in Narragansett would like to hear more about her, what she does everyday and what her hopes and aspirations are,” she added. “If she were growing up around URI, her HIV would not be an issue. She’d be in care and could expect to have a normal life. But because she’s in Mali, she could die any time the supply of medication is interrupted.”

The GAIA Vaccine Foundation, of which DeGroot is a working member, has recently recognized a number of researchers and educators who have devoted their life’s work towards solving the world’s crisis with HIV/AIDS, and also bringing the immediacy of the issue to the forefront of the public’s mind. The ‘Hope is a Vaccine’ Award highlights their achievements, and is given yearly to international and local advocates for better access to treatment of the HIV/AIDS virus globally.

“The ‘Hope is a Vaccine’ Award celebrates the contributions of individuals who have dedicated their hard work and creative ideas to stopping AIDS,” said DeGroot. “Unfortunately the public only hears about the major figures in the fight against AIDS, like Bill Clinton and the Gates. There are a lot of people like Jeff and Sonia Sachs, Daniel Halperin, and Julio Montaner and Myron Cohen who have made major advances, but their struggles against HIV/AIDS are not well known.”

“We’d like to highlight people work as hard if not much harder than famous folks, to end AIDS,” she added. “They deserve recognition too.”

Paul Loberti is Chief Administrator of the Office of HIV/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis at the Rhode Island Department of Health. Having worked for the Department of Health for 15 years, Loberti has been responsible for consistently informing the public about HIV prevention locally which, in turn, contributes to decreasing the impact of the global impact of AIDS.

Approximately 34 million people are living with the HIV/AIDS virus globally, according to 2010 data released by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), a number which had risen 17 percent since 2001. The amount of people dying of AIDS-related causes dropped to 1.8 million in 2010 from a peak of about 2.2 million in the mid-2000s. These numbers have decreased in large measure due to the work of many researchers, such as DeGroot, who have contributed a significant body of research to the HIV/AIDS issue.

“We used advanced computer-driven tools to analyze gene sequences to find the best parts of a dangerous bacteria or virus to put in a vaccine,” said DeGroot. “The approach is called ‘Immunoinformatics,’ and it was originally developed for use with HIV vaccines. While I was at Brown University from 1996 to 2008, we had a $2 million grant to work use of computer-driven tools for HIV vaccine design. We named it the

“World Clade Vaccine” or GAIA vaccine, after the Greek goddess.”
DeGroot has also worked at the GAIA Vaccine Foundation’s newly built Hope Center Clinic in Sikoro, Mali, where patients such as Kyra can go for quality access to vaccines and information about the HIV/AIDS virus. The Hope Center Clinic is the first ‘village-based’ facility in West Africa, providing services such as prenatal care, and tending to thousands of people who would otherwise have no recourse to treatment.

“We were very enthusiastic about getting to a vaccine trial by 2012, which unfortunately has not worked out,” said DeGroot. “There was a lot of funding for HIV up until 2001, when Sept. 11 happened, and the National Institute of Health’s research focus shifted to bio-defense. So we have used our tools for bio-defense too, working on vaccines for viruses such as smallpox.”

“It has recently been decided not to continue the global fund for HIV/AIDS,” she added. “This is terrible for Kyra, my patient. If we don’t get her medications to her, she’ll die. It just doesn’t seem right that she should die, and another child should live, just by luck of birth.”

The GAIA Vaccine Foundation, as well as other HIV/ADS programs across the world, has largely been responsible for the declining numbers of those affected by the virus. The introduction of Antiretroviral Therapy into low and middle income countries has saved the lives of 2.5 million since 1995, and access to higher quality treatment has prevented 700,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2010 alone.

“This is why making a vaccine is so important,” said DeGroot. “We need to be able to give people a vaccine that will cure their HIV infection, and prevent them from ever having AIDS. That is the one thing that I want to do with my life. I will find a way to do, as soon as I can, it but time is running out for those like my patient, the 11 year old girl in Mali.”

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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