Col. Nelson L. Michael, M.D., Ph.D is the Director, Division of Retrovirology, at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) and Director of the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP), an international HIV vaccine research program that successfully integrates HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment.
Today, May 18, marks HIV Vaccine Awareness Day. It has now been 30 years since the first cases of AIDS were reported and more than 33 million people are living with the disease worldwide. With an average age of around 28 years old, many of our service members do not know a world without AIDS.
The U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has been working to combat HIV for more than 25 years. We aim to develop a globally-effective HIV vaccine which, in combination with other proven prevention strategies, would enable us not only to protect our troops from HIV, but could also help curb the global pandemic.
The U.S. Military has an impressive history of infectious disease research and vaccine development. These research efforts, which include influenza, malaria, hepatitis and dengue, are critical to protecting our troops who are deployed globally. At the same time, these efforts translate into improved global health while helping to sustain progress and stability in many parts of the world.
When I travel to East Africa, where our program conducts clinical studies and provides care and treatment through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the human impact of HIV is almost overwhelming. HIV strikes most people in the prime of their lives, and can undo decades of social and economic development. The PEPFAR program has saved millions of lives and has had a direct, positive impact on communities. I have met orphans supported by our program, teenagers who learn how to avoid becoming infected, and adults who are alive today because of this initiative. As transformative as the PEPFAR program has been, a preventive vaccine is needed to help us win the long-term battle against HIV.
In 2009, the U.S. Army Surgeon General announced the results of RV144, the first study which showed that an HIV vaccine regimen was safe and 31% effective in lowering the rate of infection in humans. While there is still much work to be done before a vaccine can be deployed, this was a pivotal moment that showed that an HIV vaccine is possible.
Developing a vaccine won’t happen overnight, but we are confidant that recent advances such as RV144 have provided significant scientific momentum needed to help us achieve this goal, perhaps so that the next generation of Service members might know a world without AIDS.