By Penelope Paliani-Kamanga
Blantyre - Visiting co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Dr Jay Levy, who was in Malawi last week to mark the 35th anniversary of his famous discovery, has said education is one of the crucial strategies to reduce the pandemic whose cure is still elusive decades after discovery.
The medical researcher, who is based at the University of California, San Francisco, in the United States, independently identified the virus, which causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), in 1983 and he has since dedicated his efforts to biologic, immunologic and molecular studies of HIV and AIDS.
Speaking at a public lecture at the Malawi College of Medicine on the topic “An update on advances and future directions in prevention and treatment”, Levy said the pandemic was a challenge, which would not be solved easily.
He said governments must depend on giving young people the knowledge on how this virus infects, how it could be avoided and how people should stay protected.
“If the secretary of health interacts with the secretary of education, you have the two major areas to stop this epidemic because education is the only vaccine we have now. When we have a vaccine, it will be a tremendous help. Everyone should realise this is a challenge, which will not be easily solved. So, while we are waiting for the vaccine, please protect yourself,” he said.
Levy, who was in Malawi courtesy of Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (Gaia), also used his visit to give an update on where the country stood in the fight against the deadliest pandemic in human history and what it needed to end it.
Gaia country director, Joyce Jere, told the press that they were looking forward to “sharing experiences and emerging ideas” with Levy.
Levy’s breakthrough catalysed advancements in HIV response, including the availability of medication even in the developing world.
Commenting on the HIV virus and herbs, a topic that has been most debated in Malawi, and Africa at large, Levy said some herbs helped in making people feel better but they did very little to suppress the virus.
“I have done some herbal medicines in the US when we didn’t have good anti-retroviral viral drugs. They may be helpful by making people feel better, but they do very little to actually stop the virus or to make the immune system respond in a better way but they can help. So, I ask that the alternative medicine doctors interact with classical medical people to bring the two together,” he said.
Deputy director in the Department of HIV and AIDS in the Ministry of Health, Thokozani Kalua, said government had strategies in place that were helping the country in the fight against the virus.
“Strategies that are in place are available for the public to access. We are also working with the ministry of education to make sure that our interventions have a huge impact, particularly looking at how to prevent infections in adolescent girls, young women and the youths who are the vulnerable population. In testing, we are also ensuring that testing services are available everywhere and last year, we did at least four million tests and that is a significant number,” he said.
Malawi still has one of the highest HIV prevalence rates globally despite the impressive progress in controlling the HIV pandemic.
Malawi College of Medicine is renowned worldwide for pioneering Option B+, a test-and-treat initiative that has improved prevention of mother-to-child transmission since 2011 by ensuring every pregnant woman living with HIV is put on anti-retroviral therapy (ART).
This is why Levy was keen interest to give a talk at the college.
Among other things, Levy visited Gaia’s door-to-door initiative in Mulanje, which has enhanced HIV testing, care and treatment among adolescents and men in remote areas.
Malawi has rolled out universal access to ART, putting everyone diagnosed HIV positive on treatment immediately.
The life-prolonging drugs are known to suppress the viral load and have reduced new infections from 98,000 a year in 2005 to 36,000 in 2016.
The 90-90-90 global agenda backed by UNAIDS seeks to ensure that by 2020, at least 90 percent of people living with HIV are tested, 90 percent of those diagnosed with HIV infections receive uninterrupted treatment and 90 percent of them achieve undetectable viral load.