Unitaid News 22 July 2019 - the IAS Conference issue


1. Back from the edge: Why stopping AIDS-related deaths is an important element in ending the epidemic

2. Solving the puzzle to find the best HIV treatments

3. It’s lights, camera, action for MTV Shuga in French

4. Podcast: Self-testing in Africa, in discussion with Karin Hatzold, PSI

Back from the edge: Why stopping AIDS-related deaths is an important element in ending the epidemic

Just last week, UNAIDS released its new State of the Epidemic report on HIV/AIDS, with some disturbing figures: the number of annual AIDS deaths is still high and appears to be leveling off.

“So many people are dying,” said Carolyn Amole, senior director, HIV, at the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI). “There might not be enough understanding that AIDS still really does kill today.”

Among global health organizations, including Unitaid, there is a growing consensus that much more must be done to stop these deaths—770,000 a year at latest count—not only for the sake of the individuals, but because defeating the epidemic demands it.

“Addressing advanced disease absolutely has a direct impact on ending the epidemic,” Amole said. “If you’re only focused on your quote-unquote healthy patients, then you’re going to continue to have people transmitting the virus who are ill and not being cared for.”

AIDS and advanced HIV disease are terms that are used interchangeably to describe the stage when an HIV-positive person’s immune system can no longer fight off opportunistic infections by bacteria, viruses and fungi. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of HIV-related death. Other common causes are cryptococcal meningitis, severe bacterial infections and cancers.

Many of these deaths can be averted, if the right tests and treatments are accessible.

One of the biggest challenges in addressing AIDS, Amole says, is explaining to donors why resources should be dedicated to it; people with advanced disease are a relatively small group, after all, compared to the 38 million people living with HIV, or the 1.7 million people who are newly infected.

“We need to build a case for why advanced disease is a smart investment that can contribute more broadly to society and economies,” she said.

Amole sees this year’s International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference in Mexico City as a prime opportunity to draw attention to the late stages of the disease, and to explain why it should be an urgent investment priority. Unitaid and CHAI will host panel discussions that will bring together people from the entire spectrum of the HIV/AIDS response, from government ministries to global health entities to people living with the virus.

“We want to give visibility to advanced disease and the improved medicines and tests that can be made available,” said Wale Ajose, a technical officer on Unitaid’s strategy team. “It’s a problem, and it’s not going away unless everybody actively works on it. Organizations that work in HIV need to prioritize advanced disease. Hopefully that translates into funding from partners and countries.”

The IAS panel will also provide Unitaid and CHAI with a chance to talk about the progress on their joint initiative to fight advanced HIV disease, which began with a US$ 20 million grant signing in January. The initiative is helping make new, WHO-recommended medicines and testing tools affordable and available in the lower-income countries where most AIDS deaths occur.

“I’m hoping bringing everybody together in a collaborative spirit can be a galvanizing moment for advanced disease,” Amole said.

Solving the puzzle to find the best HIV treatments

Unitaid and partners have brought new, affordable HIV medicines to people in Africa in only three years, three times faster than for previous generation of antiretrovirals. Further reductions in prices will save the global health response US$ 300 million each year.

It’s lights, camera, action for MTV Shuga in French

As the IAS conference gets under way this week, so does the shooting of the first season of MTV Shuga: Babi.

“It’s really an exciting time. The location, the cameras, everything is ready and we’re crossing our fingers for this first week of shooting,” said Sophie Dauzet, project manager. “Also it’s the rainy season in Côte d’Ivoire so we hope we don’t have to run too much between the sets and the shelter.”

Supported by a Unitaid grant, MTV Shuga: Babi is a new, French-language version of the popular African TV series MTV Shuga, which has proved very successful in raising HIV/AIDS awareness among its millions of young viewers.

The stories follow characters as they navigate adolescence and young adulthood against the backdrop of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The characters learn to avoid HIV, how self-tests work, and how to live with the virus, along with other sexual health matters, and the audience learns right along with them.

Casting began in June and finished just this month. Professional actors were auditioned, but separate open auditions were also held, which led to the discovery of several of the show’s main actors among 400 members of the public. Ivorian TV star Ange Eric N’Guessan rounds out the cast.

“When we were doing the public auditions we were looking at people with multiple kinds of talents, not just acting but also singing and dancing,” Dauzet said. “Shuga: Babi is going to have a lot of music and dancing.”

The first season will present the basics about HIV/AIDS—what it is, how it is transmitted, how condoms protect against it, transactional sex and fighting the stigma associated with the virus. The second season will build on those foundations, with episodes about HIV self-testing.

“We did research to get information on what young people need to know and what they’re curious about,” Dauzet said. “We found out there’s lots of myths around sexuality, contraception and diseases.”

The producers are timing the self-testing information to coincide with another Unitaid-funded project, ATLAS, implemented by Solthis, that is distributing about 500,000 self-test kits in West Africa. Unitaid is investing nearly US$ 100 million to create a market for HIV self-testing throughout Africa.

The word “Babi” is slang for Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s largest city, where the show takes place. The producers are making connections with broadcasters in other French-speaking countries, such as Mali and Senegal, so the show can have as broad a reach as possible.

HIV self-testing in Africa: in discussion with Karin Hatzold, PSI

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