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The 9th Bi-annual SA AIDS Conference drew over 3 000 doctors, scientists, health department officials, non-governmental organisation and pharmaceutical company representatives; along with a few politicians, the media and numerous AIDS activists.

When given marching orders, the activists from Treatment Action Campaign (TAC)paraded up and down chanting slogans and carrying signs, mostly denouncing pharmaceutical companies for sky-high prices of their latest drugs. AIDS conferences would be dull affairs without them. Reaching beyond South Africa, there were researchers from Eswatini (Swaziland), Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Canada, and a gaggle of Americans whose PEPFAR funding has done so much to support HIV research and the provision of AIDS drugs and care across the continent.

I can say God Bless America for PEPFAR and the work they have done and the funding they have provided African governments helping in the fight to control this epidemic. Indeed, former President George Bush did do one big thing to help all African nations. He and the United States deserve thanks for that.


On the opening morning of the conference e-TV interviewed your correspondent for five minutes,  live on its morning programme. Living with HIV for 36 years, being an AIDS researcher for 30 years and being the leading expert in Africa on how selenium affects HIV disease is too big a draw not to ask questions. This was the 54th AIDS conference I have attended, so I draw on a load of experience when reporting if anything really new or spectacular came out of this indaba. A surfer thinks of nothing but the size of the wave, so I will judge the splash this conference made. 

Then, just before the new health minster approached the podium, dozens of members of the Treatment Action Campaign filled the stage to protest stock outages of HIV drugs across South Africa.


They demanded to ‘rebuild the collapsed health system’, ‘end corruption’, and “fix the Free State health system”. All of these are incredibly important goals. But it would also be important for TAC to learn to read simple science so they can understand how important it is to use selenium in addition to standard ARVs if they want their members to be healthy. Maybe if they realized that selenium is a natural ARV – another ARV that can be added to the combinations they are already taking – then they might be just a little bit less angry. Currently they are causing their own stock outage – of selenium – because they do not even know what it is – a natural ARV even more effective against HIV disease than some of the ARVs they are protesting about being out of stock. Adding selenium to current therapy is just like adding icing to a cake. It improves therapeutic results.

ARVs suppress the virus allowing the body to gradually regenerate CD4 cells. But that does not happen nearly strongly or quickly enough when there is not enough selenium in the diet. The immune system, especially the thymus, needs selenium in order to regenerate itself. Virology and ARVs are not a complete solution to this disease, even though in high selenium countries like the US they may appear to be. 


Co-infections and co-morbidities were other important topics, especially HIV coinfection with hepatitis and tuberculosis. It is not surprising that since the hepatitis virus and tuberculosis and pneumonia mycobacteria all deplete selenium from the body; when you have multiple causes of selenium depletion, viral replication increases and health degenerates at a more rapid pace. Who could have predicted that? Since they are both part of the immune system, both the liver and kidneys require selenium in higher proportion compared to the rest of the body. Thus the progressive loss of selenium in HIV disease damages both the kidneys and liver – and the heart.

There is just too much to report from a jam-packed AIDS conference. I could cite many more facts and figuresad infinitum. Overall we agree that while progress is being made, it is not good enough – especially in prevention. For South Africa it is the best of times in that they have the biggest ARV program in the world (4.4 million), yet it is the worst of times since they have the most people who are not yet on ARVs (3.1 million). It will be decades before we are able to bring this worldwide epidemic to a close.

As every surfer knows, when the sun begins to set, it is time to go home. There will be more waves tomorrow and another AIDS conference just over the horizon somewhere in the world. Although no ‘unprecedented innovations’ were revealed at this conference, it might help if health authorities opened both eyes and smelled the fresh ocean air. Selenium is concentrated in seafood because fish swim in ocean water teaming with viruses. If health officials want to utilise an ‘unprecedented innovation’ to benefit people living with HIV, who deserve better than they are getting now; follow the lead of Nigeria, Rwanda and Zambia and examine the logic of adding selenium to ARV therapy – adding icing to the cake of ARVs..

Selenium supplements are available, affordable and sustainable. They are scientifically proven to increase CD4 count, reduce opportunistic infections and have no contraindications or negative side effects. No one really needs to think outside they box. They just need to open their eyes and ears and use good common sense. Is that so difficult?   

It’s time for this old surfer to go home – sad that people are still sick and dying who do not need to be. Like following the waves, I’ll have to jump a jet to touch down at my next AIDS conference, hoping to open the eyes of officials to not just look at virology, but also look to the benefits of understanding the immunology of this disease. Maybe the scientific waves will be bigger in Mexico City – but sharks are ever present.

Howard Armistead



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