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Nobel scientist optimistic about an HIV vaccine

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francoise Barre-Sinoussi , nobel prize, HIV/AIDSFrancoise Barre-Sinoussi overcame early sexism to become leader in fight against HIV.

Francoise Barre-Sinoussi is currently director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Pasteur Institute in France and president of the International AIDS society.

Born in 1947, she could understandably be considering retirement. Instead, she remains passionately dedicated to her work, using the opportunities that come her way after jointly winning a Nobel Prize in 2008 “to try to be the voice for others.

“This is something that for me seems to be my responsibility, my duty.”

As work continues around the world in the search for a vaccine or cure for HIV and AIDS, she is confident that something can be found.

Not a total elimination of the virus, but “a functional cure, which exists in the natural state?

“We should be capable of inducing it.”

Like all good scientists, she remains cautious about the length of time it could take to make the next discovery.

“We don’t want to return to an era of false hope for patients – ethically we can’t do it, and the public loses confidence. You have to be extremely prudent.

General good news for medicine and world health, although little comfort to those already living with the disease.

In the UK, the numbers of people receiving specialist HIV care has risen every year for the past decade, an increase of 58 per cent: from 30,849 in 2002 to 73,659 in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.

In those ten years, women over 50 have become the fastest-growing group of women with HIV, something Thames Valley Positive Support is so worried about that it published a report called Frisky over 50? about the sexual health of that age group.

One of the main problems appears to be the lack of sex education received by women of that generation.

Bernard Curtiss, support worker at Thames Valley Positive Support, said: “Older women know they can’t get pregnant any more – but they missed out on the messages about safe sex being about more than avoiding having a baby.”

One 58 year-old woman with HIV, speaking anonymously to the Guardian, said: “There’s no one I can share this with; I’ve had to make this journey almost entirely alone.

“I’m a grandmother now, and I’m so not the sort of person you imagine when you think of someone living with Aids.”

The stigma associated with the disease is something that Barrie-Sinoussi is working very hard to overcome.

In 1983, Barre-Sinoussi and her colleague and mentor Luc Montagnier developed the first test able to confirm an HIV infection.

They  published their findings in Science, and the news drew international attention.

Young men from around the world travelled to France, often with only a suitcase and no money, simply to be near the place where the discovery had occurred.

It was after meeting many of those young men and sharing in the frustrations of community groups as initially-promising findings failed to produce effective treatments that Barre-Sinoussi dedicated her work to prevention and helping patients overcome the stigma of the disease.

Having completed her degree while working full-time in the lab, Barre-Sinoussi recalls a conversation she had in the 1970s with a director at the institute about her desire to continue working at Pasteur.

“He said, ‘A woman in science, they never do anything. They are only good at caring for the home and babies. Forget this dream’.”

Barre-Sinoussi ignored him.

In recognising her work with Montagnier for the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel Prize committee said “Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity.”

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