Health groups speak out against possible cuts to military HIV research

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Speaking out against a potential $16 million cut in the Army’s base research and development budget  for HIV, leaders of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and the HIV Medicine Association (HIVMA) sent a letter Thursday to the Secretary of the U.S. Army, John McHugh, making the case for sustaining the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP).

The Army has proposed the elimination of the Army Science and Technology funding line of the MHRP for the next five years – from FY 2013 through FY 2017. Military HIV research programs sustain key facilities such as the Kenya Medical Research Institute/Walter Reed Program in Kericho, and support critical HIV vaccine trials and research aimed at improving the standards of HIV care in developing countries.

IDSA president James M. Hughes, MD, and HIVMA Board Chair Kathleen Squires, MD, urged the secretary – on behalf of the 9,000 plus members who are physicians, scientists, and other health care professionals – to continue the modest investment in the MHRP, which also sustains more than 100,000 HIV-infected people in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique and Thailand on lifesaving antiretroviral therapy through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program.

“The collaboration between MHRP and the PEPFAR program has created an important platform for operational research that improves services and enhances our knowledge about effective disease management,” according to the letter. MHRP’s landmark RV144 study in Thailand in 2009 showed for the first time that an HIV vaccine was possible.

In related news, Fred Sawe, Deputy Director of the Walter Reed Project HIV Program in Kenya and AVAC Executive Director, Mitchell Warren, wrote about the possible cuts to MHRP’s budget in Global Health Magazine, and how they threaten future HIV vaccine research.

“On September 19 … MHRP announced that it had identified two important molecular clues – two antibodies whose presence correlated with an increase or decrease in the rate of HIV infection,” according to the article. “With these findings we are the closest we have come to discovering correlates for an HIV vaccine after decades of research. In the long term, an effective vaccine will not only save lives, but it will also save the U.S. government money through reduced health care and other costs.”

The information about the Army’s intention to eliminate core funding for this program comes on the heels of congressional action in the Senate that would reduce Fiscal Year 2012 funding to $6.7 million. The House version of the DOD appropriations bill does not include the cut, maintaining the program at the $22.796 million funding allocation it received in FY 2011. The two chambers will need to reconcile the issue in final budget negotiations in conference before the bill goes to the president’s desk.

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