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HIV vaccine awareness day: Art and science join hands to spread hope

Aditi Jain

'I am +' performers on stage
'I am +' performers on stage   (Photo: Aditi Jain)

On 18 May 2018, celebrated internationally as HIV Vaccine awareness Day, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), a non-profit organization working for development of an AIDS vaccine, joined hands with the Delhi Dance Theater and PULSE, an international musical group, to shed light on the lives of HIV positive individuals and spread awareness about ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine for HIV.

This first-of-its-kind event took place at the Little Theatre Group Auditorium in the nation’s capital and was attended by an audience of over a hundred people mostly young adults and middle-aged people. The event took off with the dance drama “I am +”, a compelling account of the struggles of a young man, “Kapil”, who lives a life of social exclusion due to his HIV positive status. Rejected by his family, friends and society, Kapil eventually finds solace and happiness in the company of individuals who are similarly HIV positive and socially outcast.

Apart from the mesmerizing music, powerful performances, and evocative script, the theatre beautifully intertwined scientific facts and drama. The play cleverly included information on the modes of transmission of HIV, prevention measures at hand, how the ever-changing form and shape of the virus pose challenges in vaccine development, and the importance of strict adherence to their medication regime for affected individuals. The performance ended on a positive note by showing attempts by scientists to scan immune responses of HIV positive individuals and their achievements in identifying broadly neutralizing antibodies which can target all HIV-1 strains, a potential weapon in our arsenal for the war against AIDS.

The play was followed by a panel discussion where eminent scientists, clinicians and health economists shared advances made in their fields to tackle this disease and talked about issues that still remain un-addressed.

“I wasn’t convinced that a vaccine for AIDS is possible,” said Rajat Goel, Country director-India, IAVI, recalling his first days at IAVI. However, he is more hopeful now and believes that we are closer to getting a vaccine. “The Science needs to keep up with the changing epidemiology of the diseases and the resistance to the drugs which is slowly building up,” he added, pointing out the obstacles in the road ahead.

The panellists also discussed the currently available methods to prevent HIV transmission. “Apart from anti-retrovirals, PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) pills are available in most countries can be used to prevent of HIV transmission through sex. Male circumcision and microbicides are also other options for prevention,” said Timothy Holtz from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adding to this, Kalpana Luthra, Professor at Department of Biochemistry, AIIMS said, “Anti-retroviral targets the replicating virus and not the non-replicating one and hence there is a need for a vaccine.” Further, she stated that if given on time, anti-retrovirals can prevent the passing of HIV from mother to baby. However, transmission of this virus through breast milk can still take place.

Currently, India ranks third in the world in the number of HIV-infected people. Although a number of awareness programs have been created for this cause in India, the current event stands out in its effort to bring hope to HIV positive individuals by showcasing the advances made by scientists towards the development of a vaccine and a cure. More such events would not only diminish the social stigma associated with AIDS and HIV, but also help in shortening the wide gap in public knowledge about HIV and building scientific temperament.

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