DURBAN holds poignant memories for Nobel laureate Francoise Barré-Sinoussi, who has dedicated a 30-year career to trying to put an end to HIV/AIDS.
Fifteen years ago she helped organise the 13th international AIDS conference in Durban, where then-president Thabo Mbeki gave an opening speech in which he insisted poverty was a bigger enemy than HIV, dashing hopes that he might publicly declare once and for all that HIV caused AIDS and so end the controversy he had courted with AIDS dissidents. His stance so perturbed leading scientists, including Prof Barré-Sinoussi, that they signed the “Durban Declaration”, affirming the causal link between HIV and AIDS.
“The scientific community will remember Durban forever,” says Prof Barré-Sinoussi, who is director of the retroviral infections unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and past-president of the International AIDS Society.
She was in Durban this week for an advisory board meeting at the Centre for the Programme of AIDS Research in Africa, which is at the forefront of research into HIV and tuberculosis co-infection, as well as research on protective vaginal gels.
Prof Barré-Sinoussi began her career at the Pasteur Institute by investigating the relationship between cancer and retro-viruses, slow-acting viruses that insert themselves into the DNA of their host. Her co-discovery of HIV in 1983, for which she shared the Nobel prize for medicine with Luc Montagnier in 2008, forced her to confront the grim reality facing patients infected with a terrifying new disease for which there was no treatment or cure.
“They totally changed my life. I was working in the laboratory with no contact with patients. Then they started coming to the institute, not to see a doctor but to try to understand what we were doing to find a treatment,” she says, arguing that HIV compelled scientists to work more closely with patients and advocacy groups than any other disease that came before it.
The United Nations estimates that AIDS has killed almost half of the 78-million people infected with HIV since it emerged in the 1980s. There have been many advances since then, however the challenges are far from over, says Prof Barré-Sinoussi.
“When I meet representatives of patients I ask: ‘You are on treatment, you have a normal life, what are you expecting from us scientists?’ And 90% of them answer ‘a treatment we can stop’. Even on treatment, people say they fear infecting people, that people don’t look at them as normal and that they are afraid to let friends or colleagues see them taking medication.”
That stigma is one of the biggest hurdles preventing people from getting tested for HIV, she says. Nevertheless, she describes herself as an optimist. She is sure a vaccine for HIV will be found.
Prof Barré-Sinoussi is unafraid to speak truth to power: in 2009 she wrote an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI challenging his assertion that condoms did not protect against HIV.
She pulls no punches. “It’s not science we are doing wrong, it’s policy, it’s implementation, it’s political will (that’s lacking).”