25 Years On…HIV Akin To A Tsunami Every Month, Says Virus Discoverer

Twenty five years after the first case was reported, HIV/AIDS is killing over 250,000 people each month – akin to a tsunami every month, says Professor Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the virus and developer of the HIV/AIDS blood test. His article is part of a special HIV/AIDS theme issue of Student BMJ, in which he calls for sustained research to ensure new ways of preventing and treating this global pandemic.

Gallo provides a fascinating personal insight into the 25 years that the disease has been with us, including his work on human retroviruses and the discovery of the HIV in the early 1980s.

“Those early years of 1982-85 may be regarded as representing the fastest pace ever achieved in medical science from the time of the birth of a new disease to advances in its understanding, diagnosis, prevention, and therapy,” he writes.

But he also talks of his concern as he watched the epidemic take hold, and his initial pessimism about the prospects of effectively treating HIV.

It’s nearly 23 years since we knew the cause of AIDS, he says. Where are we today? Can we expect things to improve significantly?

He believes this is impossible to predict, but is clear that we must never forget the essential role still to be played by medical science. “We have effective therapy only because of the basic research in HIV and new forms of therapy will only come from more research,” he writes.

The ultimate answer, of course, is a successful preventive vaccine. Although this is a formidable challenge, Gallo is optimistic for the future. “Perhaps this will be the last time that 25-year reflection is needed,” he suggests.

If we are to achieve the dream of not “celebrating” the 50th anniversary, we need to act fast, adds Balaji Ravichandran, Editor of Student BMJ. Equal attention must be paid to both prevention and treatment, while scientific enquiry into all aspects of the disease should never be ignored.

“For it is science that discovered the virus behind the pandemic, science that attempts to prevent and treat it, and only science that will, one day, put a complete end to it,” he writes.