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Guest Commentary: What’s driving the decline in AIDS news coverage?
April 2011
by Dr. Robert T. McNally  |  Email the author

According to a new study, media coverage of HIV/AIDS fell more than 70 percent in developed countries over the last two decades. The Trends in Sustainability Project—a joint project of the University of Leeds, Queen's University Belfast, the Berlin-based Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) and Euromed Management School in Marseille—tracked coverage of a variety of sustainability issues in 115 leading broadsheet newspapers in 41 countries from 1990 until May 2010.
Although it is true that newspaper readership has been steadily eroding over the past decade due to the rise of alternative online news sources, this study is still a powerful indicator of the priority that traditional news organizations assign to various topics. In the early 1990s, an average of 1.5 articles about HIV/AIDS was found in every issue of these newspapers; since 2008, that average has fallen to less than 0.5 articles.  
As the researchers discovered, during the time interval under study, coverage of HIV/AIDS peaked at the end of 1991, after which coverage then dropped to values between 0.5 and 1 article per issue from the late 1990s onward—roughly one-third of the levels of coverage observed in the early 1990s. It is striking to note that among the set of 20 sustainability-related issues studied by the project— ranging from climate change to human rights violations—HIV/AIDS was the only issue that experienced a substantial reduction in levels of public attention through the last 20 years. As the authors of the study conclude: "A stark decrease of coverage towards the end of the review period can be identified, irrespective of the threat the disease continues to pose."  
What accounts for the decline in newspaper coverage of HIV/AIDS in developed nations? I believe it is a mix of complacency and ignorance. Consider attitudes in the United States. Segments of the American public think HIV is a non-issue based on the fact that antiretroviral therapy drugs can be effective and provide an extended lifespan to those living with HIV. What they fail to realize is that the current high cost and substantial side effects of these treatments are still problematic—not a long-term solution, and certainly not a solution for developing regions of the globe.
Solid support for this point of view, I believe, comes from a sifting of the media statistics for HIV/AIDS coverage gathered by the sustainability researchers. When the coverage was broken down for six nations—Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, the U.K. and the United States—it was found that South African newspapers clearly show the highest coverage levels throughout mid-2000 to 2010, ranging from 1.5 to 2.7 articles per newspaper issue. Furthermore, South Africa, where HIV is a major crisis, is the only of the six country subsamples that does not show a marked downward trend over time.   
Meanwhile, the decrease in coverage is particularly pronounced in French and U.S.-based newspapers, dropping from around 1 to 0.5 and from 1.5 to roughly 0.7 articles per newspaper issue in 2010, respectively. The Australian, French and U.S.-based newspapers reached their lowest levels of coverage observed throughout the review period in 2010; German and U.K.-based newspapers showed coverage levels in 2010 that are very close to their overall lowest values in HIV/AIDS-related coverage.  
The residents of developed nations in 2011 may be tempted to believe the HIV/AIDS crisis is a problem for other parts of the world. Yet this flies in the face of the facts. Note, for example, that in the United States, there are 55,000 new HIV infections every year, a number that has remained unchanged since the mid-1990s despite the use of counseling, medications and protective measures.  
Over the last couple of decades, there have been many false hopes and plenty of failures on the road toward a resolution of the HIV crisis. As a result, some doubt a cure or treatment lies on the horizon. These individuals are not paying attention to the positive news from clinical studies that shed a very real ray of hope on finding a safe, cheap, universal treatment. 
For example, one notable advance was publicized in September 2009 by the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP), which is focused on developing an effective HIV vaccine for use in Southeast Asia. In a six-year-long, community-based, Phase III clinical trial known as RV144, researchers demonstrated that a combination of two vaccines—based on HIV strains that commonly circulate in Thailand—was safe and modestly effective in preventing HIV infection. Specifically, the treatment consisted of a prime-boost combination of ALVAC HIV and AIDSVAX B/E vaccines. More than 16,000 adult volunteers in Thailand were involved in the study. Executed by the Thai Ministry of Public Health, the study included a team of leading Thai and U.S. researchers. The trial was funded by the U.S. government, specifically the Division of AIDS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, Department of Defense.     
According to the trial sponsor, the U.S. Army Surgeon General—via the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity—the results showed that the combined vaccines lowered the rate of HIV infection by 31.2 percent (a statistically significant amount) in a heterosexual population compared with placebo. For the first time ever, the ability to reduce the risk of HIV infection in humans was demonstrated. This news was presented by the lead clinical investigator on Oct. 20, 2009 at the AIDS Vaccine 2009 symposium in Paris and subsequently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In 2010, more than 30 U.S. and international collaborators initiated lab studies of the patient specimens in an effort to define the immune responses mediating the vaccine-induced protection against HIV infection. These efforts are ongoing, and further work is required to develop and test a vaccine suitable for licensure and worldwide use.  
In separate news from July 2010, researchers from the NIAID's Vaccine Research Center (VRC) reported in two Science papers on their discovery of three human antibodies that neutralize HIV. Two of these antibodies were shown to target a broad range of HIV strains. Nearly everyone infected with HIV produces some antibodies to it; the newly identified antibodies are unique in their breadth of neutralizing activity.  
The VRC scientists screened blood samples from HIV-infected people around the globe for antibodies against nearly 200 strains of HIV to determine how many strains the antibodies of each patient could neutralize. Blood from one particular patient, known as "donor 45," was found to include broadly neutralizing antibodies specific for HIV envelope proteins. The screen identified three antibody-producing cells with the desired activity. Two of the cells, named VRC01 and VRC02, were found to neutralize 91 percent of the HIV strains tested, while a third, named VRC03, was found to neutralize 57 percent. This finding lends support to the principle that it is possible for the human immune system to generate broadly neutralizing antibodies. However, as noted by the authors of these Science papers, the design of a vaccine that can induce antibodies with similar specificity will require significantly more effort.  
Prominent headlines aside, it is possible to get a true sense of the scope of current efforts to create an HIV vaccine by attending any one of the numerous research conferences in the field—such as those sponsored by the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, a unique global alliance of independent organizations working together to accelerate the development of safe and effective HIV vaccines. For example, at the AIDS Vaccine 2010 Conference, which was held in Atlanta last September, one had the option of attending close to two dozen sessions covering everything from novel immunogen delivery strategies, to animal models of HIV transmission, to recent advances in B-cell and protective antibody responses. Numerous smaller symposia, such as one held at the New York Academy of Sciences in May 2010, attracted speakers who addressed the challenges of developing HIV vaccines to prevent or control infection, the genetic diversity of the virus and mechanisms that can be used to reduce HIV transmission in conjunction with a future vaccine.  
According to the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), funding for a preventative AIDS vaccine research topped $868 million during 2008 alone. While the investment is significant, so are the strides that are being made.   In conclusion, I believe that AIDS news coverage in developed countries ought to reflect the very real urgency of finding preventative and therapeutic vaccines, the state of ongoing research and the breakthroughs that are being made today, such as the studies I have outlined above. If newsgathering organizations in these countries had a deeper understanding of the current state of the field, the result would be a level of newspaper coverage similar to that marking the earlier years of the crisis.  
Dr. Robert T. McNally is president and CEO of GeoVax Labs Inc., an Atlanta-based biotechnology company that creates, develops and tests innovative HIV/AIDS vaccines.  He can be reached at



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