The HIV/AIDS gamechanger

During its short but painful existence in humans, HIV/AIDS has thwarted efforts at prevention. Vaccines have proven elusive; changing human behaviors that spread the disease is never as easy as we'd like. HIV in particular is wrapped in a complicated web of women's rights, sexual mores, and a fraught debate over family planning. Which is precisely why a new study, released by the U.S. National Institute of Health on Thursday, could change everything. Treating HIV patients with anti-retrovirals early into their infection, the study found, can prevent up to 96 percent of HIV transmission. That's as high as anyone could ever hope to get with a vaccine.

Ninety-six percent efficacy would be a headline no matter what the debate. But in the  context of the HIV/AIDS debate, this is monumental because it unites two often-opposed ideologies about how best to respond to the disease: treatment or prevention. The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS, known as PEPFAR, favored the former, extending anti-retroviral access to 2.5 million people who didn't have it before. When the Barack Obama administration came into office, they wanted to emphasize prevention at least as much or more. As I wrote last summer, that tweak in policy started an advocacy war. 

Why the differences of opinion? For many of the advocates of treatment, this was a way to avoid stepping into the internal U.S. debate  about birth control. Preventing HIV infections usually includes condoms, something that the political right has always found distasteful to support -- at least without a heavy emphasis on abstinence. Prevention advocates meanwhile argued that this was a short-sighted strategy. Providing people with life-saving drugs was great, but it wasn't going to stop the epidemic from growing. Ever.

If the results of this new study hold, however, those two sides of the HIV equation will be joined. Treatment will be prevention, and the best prevention, treatment. The question may have answered itself. The politics and the science will suddenly agree over the most effective public health response. 

So the only catch now? The cost. Under the Obama administration's new Global Health Initiative, funding for anti-retrovirals is growing at a much slower pace than it did in the previous half-decade. The pressure will be on now more than ever to ratchett that up.



Putin the Apostle?

Some Passport-bait from the good folks at the Telegraph:

Vladimir Putin has become the object of veneration for a bizarre Russian all-female sect whose followers believe that the tough-talking prime minister is a reincarnation of the early Christian missionary Paul the Apostle.

Members of the sect that has sprung up in a Russian village some 250 miles southeast of Moscow believe that the 58-year-old macho Russian politician is on a special mission from God.

"According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle was a military commander at first and an evil persecutor of Christians before he started spreading the Christian gospel," the sect's founder, who styles herself Mother Fotina, said.

"In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things. But once he became president, he was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and just like the apostle, he started wisely leading his flock. It is hard for him now but he is fulfilling his heroic deed as an apostle."

Reports from the sect's headquarters close to the town of Nizhny Novgorod say that its members are all women who dress like nuns and pray for Mr Putin's success in front of traditional Russian Orthodox Church icons that have been placed alongside a portrait of the Russian prime minister himself.

Followers are reportedly encouraged to sing upbeat patriotic Soviet songs at 'services' rather than hymns.

As befits a sect that worships a man who has denounced the decadence of the oligarchs, the sect's members are said to survive on a Spartan diet of turnips, carrots, peas and buckwheat.

I'm not entirely sure I buy this story, which seems to have started as an AFP dispatch quoting a Russian website and has been featured in a few other places. The women don't actually seem to be praying to Putin or suggesting that he's some sort of supernatural being himself. And Putin's personality cult aside, Russians aren't the only people who offer prayers for their political leaders, or even pray with images of them. Then again, if any world leader could inspire a sect of turnip-eating, spiritual devotees, it's probably Putin.