By: Katherine Bond, Sc. D. and Jude Nwokike, MSc, MPH
The U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Deborah Birx, recently described the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as “one of the greatest expressions of American compassion, ingenuity, and shared humanity in our nation’s rich history.”
We recently attended the PEPFAR 2014 Annual Meeting in Durban, South Africa. Since its inception in 2003, PEPFAR, the U.S. Government’s initiative to help save the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS around the world, is supporting 6.7 million people on anti-retroviral treatment (ART) and has resulted in one million babies born HIV-free. In FY 2013 alone, PEPFAR supported 12.8 million pregnant women for HIV testing and counseling and as of September 30, 2013 will have supported voluntary medical male circumcisions for 4.2 million men in east and southern Africa.
The focus of this year’s conference was on delivering a sustainable AIDS Free Generation. We were privileged to represent FDA at the meeting, along with other Health and Human Services operating divisions –including the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
FDA has played a critical role in the PEPFAR program. As of March 2014, the Agency had approved or tentatively approved 170 antiretroviral drugs for use by PEPFAR, including 80 fixed dose combinations (FDCs), 24 of which are triple FDCs. Triple FDCs are significant because they have simplified ART from up to 20 pills a day to one pill daily — improving adherence to treatment, reducing the risk of developing resistance, and simplifying the supply chain.
We saw the direct impact of the program during a visit to the KwaMashu Community Health Centre, north of Durban in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Province. Formerly a sugar plantation, the area saw a mass resettlement of poor people in the early 1960’s. It was often the site of political violence during the Apartheid era, and is now characterized by inadequate housing, poor infrastructure, high unemployment and crime, and among the highest rates of HIV in the world.
In 2012, the prevalence of HIV in antenatal women in KwaZulu-Natal Province was 37.4%. With the support of PEPFAR, in 2014 over 12,000 adults and nearly 800 children are receiving anti-retroviral therapy at KwaMashu, extending life expectancy, and giving hope for a better future. This hope was especially apparent in two girls, ages 12 and 14, each living with HIV/AIDS, who spoke eloquently to us about being cared for by grandmothers and a dedicated cadre of area doctors, nurses, pharmacists and community workers. One girl dreams of becoming a medical researcher and the other aspires to be a lawyer.
At the conference we learned that thirteen low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are at the tipping point of overcoming the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with the number of those starting therapy exceeding the number of newly infected. This makes the goal of an AIDS Free Generation plausible. PEPFAR is supporting HIV/AIDS response in more than 100 LMICs. Also, promising comprehensive prevention strategies present great opportunities to stem the epidemic’s tide. But, even with PEPFAR’s numerous achievements, challenges still exist. In 2012 alone, there were 1.6 million deaths, 2.3 million new infections, and 260,000 babies born infected with HIV.
Scaling up treatment and effective preventive interventions, and sustaining support and access to care are critical to achieving an AIDS Free Generation. Essential to sustainability is ensuring product availability, quality, and safety of medical products used in the PEPFAR program. Several PEPFAR country representatives described challenges in supply chains attributable to weak regulatory infrastructure (for example, limited sources for Tenofovir-containing FDCs used as first line regimen); lack of capacity of PEPFAR country regulators to assure quality of rapid diagnostic kits; seizure of products at border posts because products are not registered or approved in a country; few national standards for diagnostics and medical devices; and limited capacity of local regulators for regulating medical devices. Representatives of several countries called for strong pharmacovigilance and post marketing surveillance.
Despite these challenges, there are promising developments that are likely to bring benefits to regulators in PEPFAR countries, and ultimately, the PEPFAR program’s beneficiaries. In May 2014, African nations voiced unified support for a World Health Assembly resolution on strengthening regulatory systems; reductions in time to register medicines has been reported by the African Medicines Registration Harmonization Initiative; and the WHO global surveillance and monitoring system for substandard, falsified and counterfeit medical products is receiving reports from, and issuing drug alerts based on vigilant reporting by, African regulators.
We held a special session on strengthening regulatory systems with our colleagues from a number of PEPFAR countries and identified several possible areas for future collaboration. Strengthening regulatory systems will be a key component in defining a sustainable path forward.
Katherine C. Bond is Director of FDA’s Office of Strategy, Partnerships and Analytics, Office of International Programs
Jude Nwokike is FDA’s PEPFAR Liaison, Office of Strategy and Partnerships, Office of International Programs
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