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Too early to celebrate possible cure for AIDS says Vatican point man

WASHINGTON (CNS): More than 20,000 people descended on the Washington DC, the United States of America, for the 19th International AIDS Conference, and Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo felt right at home. 

As the Catholic Church’s point man on HIV and AIDS, he moves among the scientists, politicians and activists with ease, having worked for years to make sure that those involved in faith-based responses to the disease have their voices heard in the biennial gatherings. 

Yet, Monsignor Vitillo has not always been welcomed. In the early years of the pandemic, he was provided with a bodyguard at an AIDS conference in Europe. 

“A lot of the resistance to our participation has been based on misinformation and accepting some of the media’s perspective on what the Church says and does rather than what we actually say and do,” said the special adviser on HIV and AIDS for Caritas Internationalis. 

“I meet people all the time who are shocked when they hear what the Catholic Church does in response to AIDS. They thought all we did was tell people they were terrible sinners. 

“The Church has been there from the beginning of the response to HIV and AIDS. In fact, it was mainly Church organisations that began to accept people who were dying of these very strange illnesses and infections before we even knew that it was caused by HIV or we had coined the terms AIDS. It has always been there and it has responded very well, without stigma and discrimination,” Monsignor Vitillo told Catholic News Service. 

In the days leading up to the July 22 to 27 conference, news of research into a vaccine for the virus, as well as rumours that a cure for AIDS is on the horizon, have focussed media coverage on the science of the disease. Yet Monsignor Vitillo said it is too early to celebrate. 

“There has always been a tension in the field of HIV response because many people are looking for the easy solution. They did that when they tried to promote just the use of condoms, arguing that was the solution to everything. Thirty years on, the experts realise that we need many different approaches to prevention,” he said. 

“I know we’re talking a lot about the cure, but at the point where science is right now, we only have antiretroviral treatment as the best approach medically,” he said. “We have a long way to go. I hope there’s a miracle. I hope we find a cure or a preventative vaccine soon. But so far we don’t have that, and we shouldn’t forget the social, developmental, psychological and spiritual responses that are part of a comprehensive response to HIV and AIDS.” 

Monsignor Vitillo said antiretroviral treatment has not only saved the lives of people living with HIV, but it has reduced the infection rate dramatically in some countries, primarily in Africa. 

Studies show people on antiretroviral treatment are 96 per cent less likely to pass on the virus. This development has been critical in reducing mother-to-child infection rates. 

Monsignor Vitillo will speak to a pre-conference gathering of some 80 Catholic AIDS workers from around the world, detailing his participation in a massive programme that aims to halt new infections of children by 2015 in India and 21 African countries. 

The plan aims to assure that pregnant women who are HIV-positive are provided with antiretroviral treatment to ensure that the child is not infected in the womb, during birth, or during breast-feeding. 

The plan also aims to keep the women healthy, “because we don’t want to save the children and then have them lose their mothers,” Monsignor Vitillo said. 

Although the cost of antiretroviral treatment has dropped to roughly US$100 ($774) per patient per year in poor countries, Monsignor Vitillo said Church workers are continuing to push pharmaceutical companies to respond appropriately to the crisis. He said a Caritas campaign to develop better pediatric dosing of antiretroviral drugs has enjoyed some success. 

At this year’s AIDS conference, he and other Church leaders will be pushing the Medicines Patent Pool, where drug companies will deposit their patents for HIV medicines, allowing faster development of needed drugs. 

Some companies have agreed, and Monsignor Vitillo said he will be thanking them. Others will be encouraged to participate. 

Monsignor Vitillo said he has worked hard to keep open a dialogue with the giant pharmaceutical companies. 

“We recognise that they have a purpose that includes making a profit, but they can’t forget the fact that we have large numbers of people who need their help in order to survive,” he said.