This is a historic moment in the three-decade fight against HIV/AIDS. After extensive trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given preliminary approval to Gilead Sciences to begin mass-producing Truvada, a pill that prevents HIV infection.
Truvada is not a miracle drug. It must be used in combination with safe-sex practices and condoms to prevent and reduce the rate of infection. In approving the drug, the FDA stresses that Truvada is not a cure for the disease if it has already been acquired. If a strict regimen including daily use of the pill is followed, a success rate for prevention between 44 percent and 94 percent can be expected.
Although Truvada has little value for the 1.2 million Americans who are infected with HIV, another 50,000 contract the virus each year and could benefit from the drug. The rate of HIV infection has slowed, but it is still a scourge on gays and bisexuals. African-Americans of all sexual persuasions are at particular risk compared to other ethnic groups.
The breakthrough isn't all good news. The drug could cost $11,000 to $14,000 annually. That's a lot of money for a preventive measure aimed at otherwise healthy people, especially noninfected partners of those who have the virus.
Poor people and those without health insurance probably will be out of luck. That's unfortunate, because they are often the most vulnerable to the virus. The sooner Truvada's price comes down, the more effective it will be across society.
For those with HIV, the success of Truvada offers hope that they too may be helped by a breakthrough. Many with HIV/AIDS are already living longer, thanks to pharmaceutical cocktails that extend their lives by decades.
At some point, medical researchers may announce a cure for HIV/AIDS that will be affordable and accessible to all. That, too, will be a historic moment.