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Prevention and treatment advances

Along with the life-saving Covid-19 vaccines that were developed over the past 18 months through unprecedented global scientific collaboration, a number of treatment and prevention advances have provided some much-needed good news to round off 2021.

‘Functional’ cure for HIV moves to human trials

American drug company, Excision BioTherapeutics, has announced that their new treatment, called EBT-101, received FDA approval to progress to human trials. The treatment uses The Nobel Prize-winning CRISPR gene-editing technology to cut numerous pieces of the HIV genome in a bid to make it unable to mutate inside the body. This one-off treatment could potentially mean that people living with HIV would not have to stay on antiretroviral treatment (ART) for life. It is being called a ‘functional’ cure because while small amounts of HIV could remain in the body, it would not be at a level that would make the affected person test positive for the virus. Trials for the new treatment will include people using ART to control their HIV, with those participating receiving one dose of EBT-101 and remaining on ART for three months. After this period, they will come off ART and be checked for the return of HIV.

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HPV vaccine slashes cervical cancer rates

The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine – given in South Africa to girls in Grade 5 – has been shown to cut cervical cancer rates by 87% in a new CancerResearch UK study. The study, published in the Lancet, also found a 97% drop in pre-cancerous changes to cells in women vaccinated between the ages of 12 and 13, 75% in women vaccinated between the ages of 14 and 16, and 39% in women vaccinated between the ages of 16 and 18. This is good news for South Africa where cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in women. People living with HIV are also at an increased risk of cervical cancer. HPV, which also causes genital warts, is a sexually transmitted infection that is believed to be responsible for the majority of cervical cancer cases.

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WHO recommends new malaria vaccine

The World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending widespread use of the new RTS,S malaria vaccine among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high malaria transmission. The recommendation comes after positive results from an ongoing pilot programme in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi that has reached more than 800 000 children since 2019. Malaria is a primary cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa. The pilot found the vaccine to have a strong safety profile, was cost-effective and easy to implement and produced a significant reduction (30%) in deadly severe malaria.

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