Deployed U.S. forces have historically been exposed to diseases that are not prevalent in the U.S. such as malaria, leishmaniasis and dengue.
To combat these disease threats, the U.S. military has excelled at infectious disease research and spurred some of medicine’s greatest advances in disease prevention, diagnostics, and treatment.
When the HIV epidemic first emerged in the 1980s, the U.S. government immediately recognized the threat the disease could pose to service members.
In response, Congress established the U.S. Military HIV Research Program (MHRP) at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research . In this age of global deployments, HIV not only continues to pose a threat to service members, but it can also compromise the stability of a nation where the disease is prevalent and endanger worldwide security.
Early in the epidemic, the U.S. military emerged as a leader when MHRP developed the first HIV disease staging system, which was adopted by the Army in 1986.
Around the same time, MHRP published evidence of the then-controversial notion that HIV could be transmitted heterosexually. In 1987, MHRP scientists developed the criteria for Western blot positivity—the fist supplemental confirmatory test for HIV.
Fast-forward to 2009; the U.S. Army announced the results of RV144 , the first HIV vaccine trial to show some ability to protect people against this disease.
Today, the U.S. military continues to pursue the goal of developing a globally effective HIV vaccine to assist in the eventual eradication of HIV/AIDS. Earlier this year, the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper co-authored with MHRP scientists that detailed clues to why the vaccine tested in RV 144 protected some volunteers.
Military scientists continue to work closely with partners across the world to develop and test novel vaccine strategies. Collaborative work with Harvard University, Crucell Corporation and MHRP, published this year in the journal Nature, point the way to novel vaccine combinations that will soon be evaluated in clinical studies.
Additionally, MHRP has developed a promising next-generation HIV vaccine that is currently in clinical testing in Africa and Sweden.
For the first time in history scientists and global leaders alike are talking about the end of AIDS . Recently, great advances have been made in preventing HIV through the use of new strategies such as adult male circumcision in Africa and AIDS therapeutics as prophylaxis.
However, these new prevention strategies have their limitations, and it will take a combination of prevention methods, including a vaccine, to truly end the pandemic. The U.S. military pursues this mission vigorously to protect U.S. troops and the global community so that we may one day achieve an AIDS-free generation.
Written by Nelson Michael, M.D., Ph.D.
COL, MC, U.S. Army, Director, U.S. Military HIV Research Program