October Surprise

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Frontdesk by David Waggoner

October Surprise

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Ordinarily the months leading up to the holidays are stressful for me: trying to figure out which grandkids (I’ve got five of them) have been naughty and nice starts with how well they share their Halloween candy. (They always do share.)

Sharing treatment breakthroughs in the world of HIV should be as generous as my grandkids. In the recent past, a few scientists acted as if they were mortal enemies of each other, rather than combatants of the same virus. But this year there has been more cooperation than ever before: Witness Tivicay’s approval as a cutting-edge therapy, which couldn’t have come about without the cooperation between the pharma giants GSK and Pfizer in an initiative called ViiV Healthcare. This high-level scientific cooperation, with a pipeline of new and exciting antiretrovirals, is what will be needed.

Gilead Sciences was the first pharmaceutical company to sign an agreement with the Medicines Patent Pool to improve access to HIV treatment in developing countries, thus drastically reducing the cost of first-class antiretrovirals, and thus eliminating a death sentence for millions in such countries as Kenya and South Africa, where infection rates have fallen by as much as forty percent. So, excellent first-line-of-defense AIDS drugs are getting to the people who need them the most. This hallmark of vision that both ViiV Healthcare and Gilead Sciences are demonstrating gives me great hope that HIV will become a manageable infection for everyone by the end of this decade.

While it’s wonderful that billions are being thrown at the virus, wouldn’t it benefit everyone to prevent new infections? The only way that will occur is to put a spotlight back on HIV/AIDS and those populations that are most vulnerable—young men and women—and to foster true cooperation. In this month’s issue, for instance, Chip Alfred leads a roundtable discussion that gives voice to young men living with HIV in Philadelphia, all of whom are participants in the same support group. And Sean Black covers a recent event in Harlem where Alicia Keys and other advocates brought a message of community empowerment as a tool in the fight against HIV/AIDS. And don’t miss this month’s cover story by Dann Dulin, who interviews Emmy-Grammy-Oscar-Tony winner and humanitarian Rita Moreno. At eighty-one years young, Ms. Moreno opens our hearts and hopefully our minds to realize what needs to be done to reduce the disproportionately high infection rates in the Latino community. As one of the first bold-name AIDS activists, Moreno has always been outspoken in her views and suggests we tap into that primary model of cooperation—the family—to stay on top of our health. “When people take risks during sex, they’re not only taking a chance with their lives, they’re obviously not thinking about those in their lives who love them.…Maybe there needs to be a campaign with mothers….”

At the other end of the spectrum, what is most surprising this fall is how the U.S. government has resisted cooperation. At press time it looks like we’re facing a potential government shutdown. Neither party is solely to blame. What will happen to the FDA? Will new drug applications (NDAs) be put on hold? There’s at least one HIV drug and several hepatitis drugs that aren’t going to get approved (right away) if there aren’t scientists to convene. It’s too early to know what will happen, but it’s safe to say that cooperation among members of Congress isn’t there, and so the appropriations needed to run the FDA aren’t being authorized. Maybe Congress should look at Big Pharma and community advocates to find out how alliances get things done rather than bickering, and fake filibustering. NDAs should not be held up because a bunch of elected millionaires are derelict in their duties. Enough said: dysfunction junction doesn’t get us anywhere. Who knows, maybe too many male members of Congress have taken too much Viagra. Enough testosterone, already!

But seriously, folks, the American way of life is not served by pettiness. This country was founded on vision. And right now it would truly surprise me if the leadership comes from our elected officials. Now is the time to ask your representative to represent you. Write ’em a letter. You’d be surprised how quickly you’ll get a response!