hiv test and vaccine

HIV testing and a clinical trial for a new vaccine are being spotlighted today as World AIDS Day approaches.

In advance of the annual action day on Thursday, officials at the World Health Organization (WHO) today released new guidance for HIV self-testing.

In addition, an HIV vaccine efficacy study involving thousands of people in South African began on Monday.

Read more: Researchers closer to HIV vaccine than ever before »

HIV self-testing

About 36 million people around the world are currently infected with HIV. More than 1 million reside in the United States.

There are almost 2 million new HIV infections worldwide every year, and 1 million people die from the disease annually.

WHO officials estimate about 40 percent of those with HIV (14 million people) are unaware they’re infected.

This lack of knowledge keeps them from receiving the treatment they need. It also causes them to unknowingly spread the disease to other people.

WHO officials said self-testing is one of the most effective ways to eliminate this problem.

“Millions of people with HIV are still missing out on life-saving treatment, which can also prevent HIV transmission to others,” Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said in a statement. “HIV self-testing should open the door for many more people to know their HIV status and find out how to get treatment and access prevention services.”

With self-test kits, anyone can prick their finger, get a drop of blood, and examine it in the privacy of their home. Results are usually available within 20 minutes.

People who get results showing they have HIV are advised to get confirmation tests at health clinics, where a treatment regimen can also begin.

In the United States, two HIV home tests have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Not everyone is convinced self-testing kits are the best way to tackle HIV.

In a 2014 study, critics were quoted saying there were a high number of “false-positive” results. They also said the tests may give people in high-risk groups a false sense of security, and encourage them to ignore other preventative measures, such as condoms.

However, WHO officials are steadfast in their belief in self-testing.

“By offering HIV self-testing, we can empower people to find out their own HIV status and also to notify their partners and encourage them to get tested as well,” Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, director of WHO’s Department of HIV/AIDS, said in a statement. “This should lead to more people knowing their status and being able to act upon it. Self-testing will be particularly relevant for those people who may find it difficult to access testing in clinical settings and might prefer self-testing as their method of choice.”

Read more: Life expectancy for people with HIV continues to improve »

Vaccine trial begins

On another front in the effort to stem HIV, officials announced that the first HIV vaccine efficacy study is underway.

The trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will inoculate 5,400 men and women in South Africa.

More than 1,000 people in that country become infected with HIV every day.

The current trial is a follow-up to a 2009 vaccine study in Thailand. That vaccine was only 31 percent effective and wore off over time, but it provided clues to the AIDS virus vulnerability, according to a story in The Washington Post.

If the current vaccine proves to be more than 50 percent effective, then drug manufacturers GSK and Sanofi Pasteur could begin licensing agreements with the South African government, according to the Post.

The South Africans in the current trial are HIV-negative and are between 18 and 35 years old.

Half of them will receive five vaccinations over the next year and then be monitored for two years.

The other half of the volunteers will receive a placebo as part of a control group.

“If deployed alongside our current armory of proven HIV prevention tools, a safe and effective vaccine could be the final nail in the coffin for HIV,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the NIH, said in a statement. “Even a moderately effective vaccine would significantly decrease the burden of HIV disease over time in countries and populations with high rates of HIV infection, such as South Africa.”

Read more: Vaginal ring is the latest tool to help prevent HIV in women »