Harvard Chan researchers present new findings at AIDS conference

The 22nd International AIDS Conference drew HIV/AIDS experts from around the world, including researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who presented new findings on topics including the risks of a new AIDS drug, “test-and-treat” campaigns in Africa, U.S. funding to fight HIV/AIDS, and countries that criminalize HIV infection.

The conference was held July 23-27, 2018 in Amsterdam and a number of media outlets covered the findings.

Rebecca Zash, research fellow in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, reported that a new HIV drug, dolutegravir, was found to be seven times more likely to produce neural tube defects—severe defects of the spine and skull that can happen early in pregnancy—in babies whose mothers took the drug at the time they conceived than in mothers who didn’t take the drug, according to a July 24, 2018 Telegraph article. Zash, lead author of the study, said the findings “really highlighted a need for better access to contraception, better patient-centered care in areas with high HIV prevalence and better systems to study the safety of antiretrovirals in pregnancy.”

Joseph Makhema, chief executive officer of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, discussed findings from the Ya Tsie Botswana Prevention Project, the first study to show that combined interventions can impact HIV incidence. The “test-and-treat” trial was conducted from 2013 to 2018 and involved people from 30 rural and semi-urban communities in Botswana. Among a randomized group of participants who received a slate of HIV prevention interventions—such as home-based HIV testing and text reminders about care and treatment—there were high levels of HIV diagnosis and viral suppression, Makhema said in a July 25, 2018 NAM article.

The impact of funds from PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, on mothers and babies in Kenya was the focus of another paper released at the conference. PEPFAR is a multi-billion dollar U.S. program to combat HIV and AIDS, begun by President George W. Bush, that the Trump administration is considering cutting. The study found that, in provinces in Kenya with the most PEPFAR funding, infant mortality was 30% lower than provinces with the least PEPFAR money, and tens of thousands of babies were born HIV-free even though their mothers carried the virus. Co-author Donna Spiegelman, a professor of biostatistics at Yale who conducted the work while at Harvard Chan School, said in a July 25, 2018 NPR article that researchers are “happy to contribute to showing that in this particular case it seems as if the investment was well worth it.”

In another paper released at the conference, simultaneously published in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, scientists and doctors from around the globe said that laws in at least 68 countries that criminalize HIV infection are making the epidemic worse. An accompanying viewpoint article in the journal, co-authored by Kenneth Mayer, professor in the Department of Global Health and Population, contended that limited understanding of HIV science leads to stigma and miscarriages of justice and undermines efforts to fight the epidemic, according to a July 26, 2018 MedPage Today article.

Gloria Mayondi, study coordinator, Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, Shahin Lockman, associate professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, and Kunjal Patel, senior research scientist in the Department of Epidemiology, also presented at the conference.

Others from Harvard Chan who contributed to research presented at the conference included Kathleen Wirth, Molly Pretorious Holme, Kathleen Powis, Scott Dryden-Peterson, Vladimir Novitsky, Roger Shapiro, Victor De Gruttola, Quanhong Lei, Rui Wang, Eric Tchetgen Tchetgen, and Max Essex.

Read the Telegraph article: Groundbreaking new HIV drug linked to higher risk of birth defects

Read the NAM article: Test and treat studies show high rates of HIV diagnosis, viral suppression

Read the NPR article: Praise For The Global HIV Program That Trump Wants To Cut

Read the MedPage Today article: HIV Criminalization Called Ineffective and Unjust

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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health AIDS Initiative