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Society

The Beauty Of Diversity: Pageants Around The World Celebrate Difference

Beauty pageants once rewarded good looks, and maybe some talent on the side. But the events are no longer just a showcase for perfect hair and swimsuits. Innovative pageants around the world celebrate differences and advocate for people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ communities.

Gina Rühl might soon make history as the first Miss Germany with only one arm, an injury she sustained after a life-threatening motorcycle accident. Rühl now uses her platform to advocate for others with disabilities. She told German newspaper Die Welt that she decided to compete in Miss Germany because “I knew that this competition is no longer just about the outer shell, but about who you are and what message you want to convey to people.”

This is an increasingly common sentiment among beauty pageant contestants, a genre of competition that originally awarded good looks, and maybe some talent on the side. No longer just a showcase for beauty queens, both conventional and more inventive pageants around the world are embracing a more diverse range of contests.

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Iran's New Law To Boost Birthrate Takes Aim At Condoms, Raises HIV Risks

An Iranian public healthcare official warns that a parliamentary bill to boost birth rates will cut access to condoms, and could fuel sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS.

TEHRAN — Facing the lowest birth rate in the Middle East, the Iranian government has passed legislation that will end the distribution of free contraceptives in the public health care system unless a pregnancy would threaten the woman's health.

The law, called Rejuvenate the Population (Tarh-e javani-e jam'iat), has already faced pushback from NGOs for its attempt to undermine woman's reproductive rights. But now an Iranian public health official has also voiced his opposition, warning that discouraging the use of condoms will increase the spread of AIDS/HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

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How The Urban Battle Against HIV Helped Cities Fight COVID

HIV health and support groups in LGBT neighborhoods offered COVID-19 testing and other community services during the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, local neighborhoods have played a critical and well-documented role providing the health and social services necessary for American communities and businesses to survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gay neighborhoods were particularly well equipped to meet this challenge, according to our latest research on these communities.

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Nix The Patents: The Case For COVID Vaccines As A Public Good

The pandemic is too big a crisis and too unpredictable to respect the normal trade rules governing pharmaceutical developments.

-OpEd-

PARIS — Extraordinary times, as the saying goes, call for extraordinary measures, — and nowhere is that more imperative than with the patent regulations governing the recently developed coronavirus vaccines.

In normal circumstances, it takes 10 years before a drug is authorized for sale, plus another 10 years of marketing by a single producer before the patent falls into the public domain as "generic." But in the current context, as the world grapples with an unprecedented crisis, those rules just don't make any sense.

Patents give companies the right not only to produce the vaccines, but to do so exclusively for 20 years.

Remedies are available, but not enough and not for everyone since only a few companies own the patents that give them the right not only to produce the vaccines, but to do so exclusively for 20 years.

That privilege, however, has been overtaken by the historical moment. That exclusivity does take into account the current catastrophe. The 20-year period of private monopoly applied to vaccines for COVID-19 is so absurd, so unsuited to the global situation, that only our ideological ruts prevent us from questioning it. The fact is that we just can't wait for 20 years.

The industrial monopoly on vaccines is dangerous and unfair. It is dangerous because we are wasting precious time. Apart from the financial price, the production and sales system of a few private industries will never be able to keep pace. At this rate, for too long not enough people will be vaccinated and the COVID-19 virus will continue to circulate, kill and mutate all over the world.

With these mutations, other vaccines may be needed and then other treatments will have to be invented, produced and purchased at a high cost. More importantly, much more aggressive forms of the virus could appear.

Yes, we've already adapted to many things since the start of this pandemic. But how will we react the day when, through a mutation, COVID-19 starts killing young people and children? The more time that passes, the less we vaccinate on the five continents and the more we risk random, unanticipated mutations.

These vaccines are a public good; they cannot belong to anyone.

The monopoly and the shortage of vaccines it creates are unfair because they effectively create hierarchies among human beings. They separate and distinguish the rich from the poor, the young from the old, caregivers from educators, workers from the disenfranchised, powerful nations from others, and so on. At the beginning of 2021, the richest countries own and distribute, sometimes at a high cost, the vast majority of existing vaccines. But in whose name? In the name of what?

Today, vaccines and any future treatments must be considered as universal tools or goods, like fire, water or the wheel that no one would ever think of patenting. These vaccines are a public good; they cannot belong to anyone. No right, no ideological fear can justify this exclusivity. Let us fund research rather than the commercial exploitation of patents. These substances should be considered immediately as generics. Moreover, this must be our goal and we must compensate industries for any necessary investments.

Vaccines and any future treatments must be considered as universal tools or goods — Photo: Str/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

With the global coronavirus pandemic, today more than ever, treating and saving lives is more than a right. It is a duty. All the nations of the world, all the governments, all the laboratories, private as well as public, must be able to produce and distribute the vaccines and treatments necessary to stop this disaster that overwhelms us. There is nothing revolutionary about this idea.

There has already been at least one precedent, with the treatment of AIDS in the 1990s. Faced with the shortage and the exorbitant prices charged by the pharma giants, the governments of several countries (including Brazil and India) decided to produce and distribute free AZT generics to treat their populations. Neither the pharmaceutical industry nor research collapsed, and millions of lives were saved. Let more willing rulers lead the way and others will follow.

In the current context, as the world grapples with an unprecedented crisis, those rules just don't make any sense.

So let it be said: The medical monopoly granted by the purchase of a patent is an undue and anachronistic appropriation of the needs of the whole of humanity in the face of COVID-19. The right to health is universal. The duty of governments to treat is a non-negotiable emergency. Letting this trade law, with its built-in 20-year monopolies, prevail would be an incomprehensible and dramatic error for which the rulers of each country would be the first responsible, and us, their consenting victims.

The question is simple: Should we still leave to some three or four companies the exclusive right to trade, manufacture and distribute vaccines and anti-COVID-19 treatments all over the world? The answer seems obvious.

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India
Arun Panchapakesan*

A Sober Look At The Latest HIV Treatments

The news that a patient in London was recently cured of HIV is remarkable. But the media buzz is also quite misleading because the treatment isn't easily replicable. Still, there's reason for hope.

BENGALURU — Over the past week, the internet has been awash with articles about "the London patient," the second person after "the Berlin patient" to have been functionally cured of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

The event has been described mostly in the superlative, with many news reports calling it a major breakthrough in the field. Some went as far as to call it a "ray of hope" to HIV patients worldwide. This is not correct. In reality, the terms and conditions associated with the technique render it very unlikely to become routine therapy for HIV patients.

The procedure itself is fairly straightforward. HIV infects blood cells in the human body. So the bone marrow, which produces blood cells, is destroyed by radiation. A new marrow is transferred from a donor who is naturally resistant to HIV, thanks to a mutation in her genes.

Then come the caveats. Bone marrow transplant procedures have a poor survival rate. This raises ethical concerns that reserve this technique to only those people who need the transplant to treat some other disease, not HIV-AIDS. In other words, the cure for HIV is a bonus and not the transplant's primary aim. And in almost all cases, this "other disease" is some form of blood cancer. (Blood cancer affects the white blood cells of the immune system, and advanced stages of blood cancer require a bone marrow transplant.)

Other hurdles include finding a donor with a matching tissue type and with the rare Δ32 CCR5 mutation that makes her HIV-resistant. Then, the procedure itself kills about 40-50% of the people that undertake it. There is also no guarantee that you can rid yourself of the virus.

In fact, the rarity of the Δ32 CCR5 mutation is often the bottleneck. In India, for example, there has been only one reported case of a person harboring this mutation. And without stem-cell registries — which India doesn't have — finding a matching donor for the marrow transplant is next to impossible, let alone one with the mutation.

Therefore, the "Berlin and London patients' are both exceptions. They neither are nor can be examples of the technique's success. And they certainly don't offer a "ray of hope" to HIV patients around the world.

HIV_germ_cell

Electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding (in green) from cultured lymphocyte — Photo: C. Goldsmith / CDC

My intention is not to dismiss a success story but to ensure it is parsed in its appropriate, and complete, context. It may also be useful to consider other anti-HIV techniques that hold even more promise but have received less media attention.

Scientists are broadly pursuing two treatment strategies that could potentially take us closer to making AIDS a manageable disease. These therapies could lead to a functional cure.

A functional cure differs from a sterilization cure in that the latter removes every trace of the virus from a body, whereas a functional cure will not. However, a functionally cured patient will not have to take any medications, and can live a normal life free of symptoms in spite of the virus still being in her body.

Kick and kill & block and lock.

A sterilization cure hasn't seemed practical for HIV because of viral latency. After an infection, the virus mixes its DNA with that of the host and then chooses to lie low without producing any new viral particles. This makes it impossible for the body's immune system — or any drug — to identify an infected cell: to the immune system, a latent cell is an uninfected cell. The viral DNA is now a part of your DNA, and there is no way to tell such a cell apart because it will look and behave like any other cell in the body.

The virus can then reactivate itself at any point in the future and continue the infection. As a result, any potential cure has to tackle two problems: the already-circulating viruses in the bloodstream and the latent cells.

Antiretroviral therapy can deactivate "fresh" viruses in the bloodstream. But it can't identify and target a latent cell and prevent it from reawakening in the future. At the same time, patients are expected to keep medicating themselves for their lifetimes, thus solving both problems.

The two other cure strategies scientists are pursuing are also designed to tackle these problems. They are called "kick and kill" and "block and lock."

In "kick and kill," the "kick" is the use of a combination of newly identified molecules to kickstart a latent cell to produce new viruses. Once the cell is reactivated, antiretroviral drugs can move in and "kill" the viruses.

This process is repeated using different combinations of activators until most of the activatable reservoir has been depleted. The patient can then stop taking medicines as well. However, a small proportion of cells in her body will still harbor the DNA of the virus, but it is unlikely these cells will ever become reactivated again. We know this because not even the most powerful activators will have succeeded.

"Block and lock" is the exact opposite of "kick and kill." It involves the use of drugs that force the virus to stay latent forever. New drugs have shown this promise in preliminary tests. A few rounds of treatment with these drugs pushes the HIV into a state called deep latency — after which the virus can't bounce back. And after a few months, these drugs are expected to be able to ensure that every latent cell has been pushed into deep latency, achieving a functional cure.

These are important weapons in a seemingly unending war we have waged for over 30 years. While the Berlin and London incidents are proof that we have decisively won two of the battles, it is extremely unlikely that we can win all battles using the same technique. But with "kick and kill" and "block and lock," it becomes prudent to speculate that HIV will not remain the global burden it is.

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Sources
Valérie Hirsch

In Cameroon, Where The Fight Against HIV Is Still A Losing Battle

Lack of resources and social stigma continue to stand in the way of saving lives of those at risk of AIDS in many parts of Africa.

GAROUA — A group of women, some of them pregnant, others with babies in their arms, are gathered in front of a health center in Garoua, in Cameroon's North Region. They're here to get tested for HIV.

Many of the women were encouraged to come by volunteers from a UNICEF-backed NGO called No Limit for Women Project, which is working to reduce the risk of HIV transmission from mothers to babies. In Cameroon, half of HIV-positive pregnant women give birth at home, and most of the time they aren't even aware of their condition and so don't receive treatment to reduce the risk of HIV transmission, according to Odette Etame, the program director.

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blog

Tel Aviv Aftermath, Politics Of Palmyra, Spanish Sheep Attack

SPOTLIGHT: MIGRANT RISKS

Whether fleeing war or poverty, migrants from Africa and the Middle East continue to risk their lives to reach Europe for what's been advertised as just one dangerous leap away from a much better life. The latest grim report comes this morning from Morocco where one migrant died attempting to reach the Spanish enclave of Melilla through the sewage system. More often, the tragic ending to these stories feature would-be migrants suffocating in the back of a smuggler's truck or drowning in the Mediterranean, where this week we learned more than 10,000 migrants have died since 2014.


In a bid to stem the influx of migrants, the European Commission set out partnership plans with several Middle Eastern and African countries earlier this week. This plan, following the model of a much-criticized deal with Turkey, includes trade and visa deals, as well as the creation of a $70-billion investment fund. While being a boon for the countries on the receiving end, whether such a plan would suffice to stop migrants heading north or west, or indeed whether such a plan can even materialize, are both questionable. Demands from voters at home to reduce the arrival combine with calls from human rights groups to save lives. In the more cloistered confines of diplomatic and economic negotiations, Financial Times reporter Duncan Robinson notes, European governments face a very different kind of risk: European Council President Donald Tusk bluntly called it "blackmail."

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blog

Religion, LGBT, Ethnicity: Ranking African Intolerance

Neighbors don't always need good fences. The weekly Jeune Afrique reports some encouraging findings in a wide-ranging study on tolerance for diversity taken in 33 African countries. Overall, the results indicated growing levels of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity, though this was contrasted with lingering prejudice against homosexuals.

Research firm Afrobarometer conducted the poll in 2014 and 2015, asking 50,000 Africans how they felt about living next door to members of a different religious or ethnic group, gays, migrants or people who are HIV-positive. "We chose the figure of the neighbor because in our societies, it's someone we are really close to," said Richard Houessou, one of Afrobarometer's directors, in an interview with Jeune Afrique.

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blog

Extra! First Case Of Long-Term HIV Remission

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Libération, July 21, 2015

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CAIXINMEDIA
Yao Jiayi

In China, HIV-Positive And Hired To Intimidate With Infection

A Chinese housing developer recently hired AIDS patients to threaten people with infection so they would leave their homes. It seems shocking, but discrimination in China based on HIV status is actually legal, leaving many patients little employment choic

BEIJING — If it wasn't shocking enough to learn that a local housing developer in Henan province recently hired HIV-positive people to threaten residents with infection so they would move out of their houses, consider that this wasn't an isolated case.

In China, it's relatively common for people living with AIDS to be hired for jobs such as helping to get houses demolished — in this case, the six people were known as the "AIDS demolition team" — or collecting debts, says Cheng Shuaishuai, founder of an anti-discrimination organization providing free housing to patients suffering from AIDS.

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Future
Paul Molga

Eradicating AIDS Is Within Our Grasp

French researchers have made significant discoveries that lead them to believe that a vaccine is imminent. It would target the protein that allows the HIV virus to multipy.

MARSEILLE — Thirty years since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, therapeutic leads against the virus are finally starting to appear clearly, making the notion of a cure realistic.

"Science has never been so close to breaking the mutation mechanism that protects HIV from the body's natural defense system," explains Michel-Paul Correa, director of the International Institute for the Development and Support of Innovative Scientific Research.

His scientific committee, headed by the man who co-discovered the virus, French virologist Claude Chermann, has pinned its hopes on a series of experiments that target the enzymes necessary for the virus to multiply or the receptors that enable it to enter the cells.

The most advanced research projects are those being carried out by French startup Biosantech, which is developing a vaccine that "provokes an encouraging immune response," says Dr. Jean Bora de Mareuil, head of the company's research and development. The molecule this biotechnology company developed targets the Tat protein, which enables the virus to multiply.

The scientific community is well acquainted with this key protein. In the 1990s, one of its variants was identified in a young Gabonese woman named Oyi, who carried the virus but was in good health, as were her three children, all born HIV-negative. "We formulated the hypothesis that a synthetic active ingredient derived from Tat Oyi (the variant found in the Gabonese patient) acted like an "anti-Tat" protein, preventing the virus from multiplying," de Mareuil explains. "By neutralizing it, we allow the body to restore its cellular immunity so it can eliminate the contaminated cells by itself."

Tested on HIV-infected monkeys, Tat Oyi has proved to be as efficient as it was in the study on Gabonese patients. Harvard University researchers confirmed the results, saying that it was indeed the Tat Oyi protein that, by producing the adequate antibodies to fight against the Tat protein, enabled monkeys to resist the virus. In France, Marseille-based Erwann Loret, the researcher who started the experiments, and his team at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), filed a patent for which Biosantech has the exclusive license.

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Egypt
Mostafa Hussein

Africa's Bad Habit Of Claiming False Cures For AIDS

CAIRO — The Egyptian military, with its recently announced Complete Cure device, is hardly the first to claim unproven cures for diseases that have ravaged millions of lives. Since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, false claims of cures have been advertised and often endorsed by governments all over the world — especially in Africa, the continent with the highest rates of infection.

The late Egyptian surgeon Ahmed Shafiq and Congo scientist Zirimwabagabo Lurhuma (whose country was then Zaire) claimed they had found a cure for AIDS in 1987.

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