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Women Need an AIDS Vaccine

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We applaud the Government of Canada's continued efforts to push women's and children's health to the forefront of the global agenda, as the high-level Summit on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health opens in Toronto this week. In far too many many parts of the world, women still struggle to access the health services they need, at an often deadly price.

Somewhere in the world, a woman is newly infected with HIV more than once every 30 seconds. By the time you finish reading this post, around eight more women will have contracted HIV; many of them without even realising it. Despite great progress in fighting HIV/AIDS in some countries, the disease is still the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in Sub-Saharan Africa. Women are also far more likely to be affected by the disease than men: in low and middle-income countries, almost two-thirds of the young people infected with HIV are women. For the women involved, a diagnosis of HIV can be devastating: infection and stigma rob women of economic opportunity, and poor health can keep them and their families trapped in poverty for generations.

Thankfully, the gaping gender inequalities around HIV/AIDS have not gone completely ignored. Many countries have made huge strides in making lifesaving drugs available to those who need them, especially women. Ninety per cent of HIV positive pregnant women in Botswana, Ghana, Namibia and Zambia are currently on anti-retroviral treatment, reducing their chances of passing the virus to their babies. Young women have become a focus of treatment and prevention efforts, and education programmes have helped more girls stay in school, reducing their risk of contracting HIV. As a result, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved. But with more than a million women newly-infected with HIV every year, it's clear that we still need to do more.

This means maintaining investment in health tools which have been proven to protect women, like female condoms and antiretroviral medicines. But it also means developing new tools which can better protect women and girls against infection. We know that health tools developed with the needs of women in mind can be transformative. In my previous career, for example, I helped to launch a vaccine that protects young women against certain strains of the cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV). The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) estimates that by 2020, over 30 million girls in more than 40 countries will be vaccinated against HPV.

A vaccine to protect against HIV/AIDS could be even more transformative. Modeling shows that a vaccine could prevent hundreds of thousands of women being infected with HIV every year. A vaccine would be particularly valuable for women who do not have easy access to current prevention options (like female condoms) due to weak health systems or geography. It would also empower women who are not in a position to negotiate things like condom use because of social or cultural norms -- such as the women living in fishing communities on the shores and islands of Lake Victoria in Uganda, where a voluntary testing study revealed that one out of three women is HIV positive.

Women need an AIDS vaccine. They also need to be directly involved in the process of developing one. Engaging women from communities where HIV infection rates are highest will not only help accelerate research, but also ensure that a future vaccine works for them, and is acceptable and accessible to them.

The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) is working with partners in Africa and elsewhere to ensure that women are involved in clinical trials of potential vaccines, and to ensure they can make voluntary, independent decisions to participate and receive the drugs and health services they need. Local scientists, including many women, play a crucial role in research, and local Community Advisory Boards (CABs) help educate the community on vaccine development and other issues such as gender sensitivity.

From laboratories to rural communities, women are playing a leading role in developing a vaccine. I am proud to work alongside all those who are fighting to ensure that women have access to life-saving treatment and prevention. There are still many battles to be won. Together, we can deliver an AIDS-free future.

A version of this commentary appeared in Huffington Post Germany.

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