Guest Commentary: What’s driving the decline in AIDS news coverage?

According to a new study, media coverage of HIV/AIDS fell more than 70 percent in developed countries over the last two decades.

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According to a new study, media coverage of HIV/AIDS fellmore than 70 percent in developed countries over the last two decades. TheTrends in Sustainability Project—a joint project of the University of Leeds,Queen's University Belfast, the Berlin-based Institute for Futures Studies andTechnology Assessment (IZT) and Euromed Management School in Marseille—trackedcoverage of a variety of sustainability issues in 115 leading broadsheetnewspapers in 41 countries from 1990 until May 2010.
Although it is true that newspaper readership has beensteadily eroding over the past decade due to the rise of alternative onlinenews sources, this study is still a powerful indicator of the priority thattraditional news organizations assign to various topics. In the early 1990s, anaverage of 1.5 articles about HIV/AIDS was found in every issue of thesenewspapers; since 2008, that average has fallen to less than 0.5 articles.
As the researchers discovered, during the time intervalunder study, coverage of HIV/AIDS peaked at the end of 1991, after whichcoverage then dropped to values between 0.5 and 1 article per issue from thelate 1990s onward—roughly one-third of the levels of coverage observed in theearly 1990s. It is striking to note that among the set of 20sustainability-related issues studied by the project—ranging from climatechange to human rights violations—HIV/AIDS was the only issue that experienceda substantial reduction in levels of public attention through the last 20years. As the authors of the study conclude: "A stark decrease of coverage towardsthe end of the review period can be identified, irrespective of the threat thedisease continues to pose."
What accounts for the decline in newspaper coverage ofHIV/AIDS in developed nations? I believe it is a mix of complacency andignorance. Consider attitudes in the United States. Segments of the Americanpublic think HIV is a non-issue based on the fact that antiretroviral therapydrugs can be effective and provide an extended lifespan to those living withHIV. What they fail to realize is that the current high cost and substantialside effects of these treatments are still problematic—not a long-termsolution, and certainly not a solution for developing regions of the globe.
Solid support for this point of view, I believe, comes froma sifting of the media statistics for HIV/AIDS coverage gathered by thesustainability researchers. When the coverage was broken down for sixnations—Australia, France, Germany, South Africa, the U.K. and the UnitedStates—it was found that South African newspapers clearly show the highestcoverage levels throughout mid-2000 to 2010, ranging from 1.5 to 2.7 articlesper newspaper issue. Furthermore, South Africa, where HIV is a major crisis, isthe only of the six country subsamples that does not show a marked downward trendover time. 
Meanwhile, the decrease in coverage is particularlypronounced in French and U.S.-based newspapers, dropping from around 1 to 0.5and 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 ofcoverage observed throughout the review period in 2010; German and U.K.-basednewspapers showed coverage levels in 2010 that are very close to their overalllowest values in HIV/AIDS-related coverage.
The residents of developed nations in 2011 may be tempted tobelieve the HIV/AIDS crisis is a problem for other parts of the world. Yet thisflies 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 remainedunchanged since the mid-1990s despite the use of counseling, medications andprotective measures.
Over the last couple of decades, there have been many falsehopes 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. Theseindividuals are not paying attention to the positive news from clinical studiesthat shed a very real ray of hope on finding a safe, cheap, universaltreatment. 
For example, one notable advance was publicized in September2009 by the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP), which is focused ondeveloping an effective HIV vaccine for use in Southeast Asia. In asix-year-long, community-based, Phase III clinical trial known as RV144,researchers demonstrated that a combination of two vaccines—based on HIVstrains that commonly circulate in Thailand—was safe and modestly effective inpreventing HIV infection. Specifically, the treatment consisted of aprime-boost combination of ALVAC HIV and AIDSVAX B/E vaccines. More than 16,000adult volunteers in Thailand were involved in the study. Executed by the ThaiMinistry 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 theDivision of AIDS, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases(NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Army Medical Researchand Materiel Command, Department of Defense.   
According to the trial sponsor, the U.S. Army SurgeonGeneral—via the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity—the resultsshowed that the combined vaccines lowered the rate of HIV infection by 31.2percent (a statistically significant amount) in a heterosexual populationcompared with placebo. For the first time ever, the ability to reduce the riskof HIV infection in humans was demonstrated. This news was presented by thelead clinical investigator on Oct. 20, 2009 at the AIDS Vaccine 2009 symposiumin Paris and subsequently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. In 2010, more than 30 U.S. and internationalcollaborators initiated lab studies of the patient specimens in an effort todefine the immune responses mediating the vaccine-induced protection againstHIV infection. These efforts are ongoing, and further work is required todevelop and test a vaccine suitable for licensure and worldwide use.
In separate news from July 2010, researchers from theNIAID's Vaccine Research Center (VRC) reported in two Science papers on their discovery of three human antibodiesthat neutralize HIV. Two of these antibodies were shown to target a broad rangeof HIV strains. Nearly everyone infected with HIV produces some antibodies toit; the newly identified antibodies are unique in their breadth of neutralizingactivity.
The VRC scientists screened blood samples from HIV-infectedpeople around the globe for antibodies against nearly 200 strains of HIV todetermine how many strains the antibodies of each patient could neutralize.Blood from one particular patient, known as "donor 45," was found to includebroadly neutralizing antibodies specific for HIV envelope proteins. The screenidentified three antibody-producing cells with the desired activity. Two of thecells, named VRC01 and VRC02, were found to neutralize 91 percent of the HIVstrains 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 humanimmune system to generate broadly neutralizing antibodies. However, as noted bythe authors of these Science papers, thedesign of a vaccine that can induce antibodies with similar specificity willrequire significantly more effort.
Prominent headlines aside, it is possible to get a truesense of the scope of current efforts to create an HIV vaccine by attending anyone of the numerous research conferences in the field—such as those sponsoredby the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, a unique global alliance of independentorganizations working together to accelerate the development of safe andeffective HIV vaccines. For example, at the AIDS Vaccine 2010 Conference, whichwas held in Atlanta last September, one had the option of attending close totwo dozen sessions covering everything from novel immunogen deliverystrategies, to animal models of HIV transmission, to recent advances in B-celland protective antibody responses. Numerous smaller symposia, such as one heldat the New York Academy of Sciences in May 2010, attracted speakers whoaddressed the challenges of developing HIV vaccines to prevent or controlinfection, the genetic diversity of the virus and mechanisms that can be usedto 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 millionduring 2008 alone. While the investment is significant, so are the strides thatare being made.
In conclusion, I believe that AIDS news coverage in developedcountries ought to reflect the very real urgency of finding preventative andtherapeutic vaccines, the state of ongoing research and the breakthroughs thatare being made today, such as the studies I have outlined above. Ifnewsgathering organizations in these countries had a deeper understanding ofthe current state of the field, the result would be a level of newspapercoverage similar to that marking the earlier years of the crisis.
Dr. Robert T. McNally is president and CEO of GeoVax LabsInc., an Atlanta-based biotechnology company that creates, develops and testsinnovative HIV/AIDS vaccines.  Hecan be reached at

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