World AIDS Vaccine Day commemorated

May 18 marks the 11th annual commemoration of World AIDS Vaccine Day, which is observed to honor the thousands of people working around the world to develop an AIDS vaccine. The significance of this day stems from a Morgan State University commencement address delivered in 1997 by then-US President Bill Clinton in which he called for renewed commitment toward the development of an AIDS vaccine. In the wake of some recent setbacks in the AIDS vaccine field, several organizations consider 2008 to be a particularly important year to raise awareness and support for continued efforts on the part of volunteers, scientists, researchers, and HIV/AIDS advocates to develop an effective vaccine. 
This year, organizations around the world coordinated educational campaigns and awareness activities to commemorate the day. The Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) hosted an event in Kasarani, outside Nairobi, offering free medical services to local residents as well as free HIV voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) services. The Kenya AIDS NGOs Consortium (KANCO) supported events throughout the country, including a free medical camp based in Kisumu, in the Nyanza Province.

Several organizations in South Africa sought to heighten awareness about the importance of continuing AIDS vaccine research in light of last year’s failure of Merck’s leading AIDS vaccine candidate, which was also tested in South Africa in a Phase IIb test-of-concept trial, known as Phambili. On May 16, the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation officially opened its Emavundleni trial site in Cape Town, and community leaders, NGO representatives, and principal investigators participated in the opening ceremony. In Uganda, the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) and IAVI supported several activities, including setting up a VCT clinic in a fishing community in Entebbe. Alan Bernstein, Director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, who was visiting Uganda at the time, attended the event.

On May 20, leading HIV/AIDS researchers mark another important day—the 25th anniversary of the study published in the journal Science by Luc Montagnier and colleagues at the Institut Pasteur and La Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital that described HIV as the causative agent of AIDS. A meeting will be held at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in observance of this day at which leading scientists will discuss ongoing research, including sessions focused on current AIDS vaccine efforts. Since the discovery of HIV, over 60 million individuals have been infected with the virus and more than 25 million have died. In an editorial published in the May 9 issue of Science, Bernstein said, “The only end for a journey that began 25 years ago should be the development of a safe and effective HIV vaccine.” —Alix Morris, contributing writer