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[OUDTSHOORN] Research on HIV/AIDS is on the rise in South Africa, a country with the largest number of HIV infections in the world, while Western research efforts have levelled out, a study has found.

Only around two per cent of all research articles produced by the United States, the biggest producer of HIV/AIDS studies, are about HIV/AIDS, according to the study in Scientometrics. Such studies take up less than two per cent of the total publication output of most European countries, and just 0.5 per cent of Japan's output.

By contrast, 5.5 per cent of South Africa's research effort goes towards HIV/AIDS — mainly clinical medicine and social studies. This is six times as much as expected given its size, but still only around three per cent of the global total.

Globally HIV/AIDS research was on the rise until 1995, and has since levelled out at around 8,000 articles per year. This compares, for example, with 30,000 papers on cancer research.

At the AIDS Vaccine 2010 conference in the United States last month (28 September–1 October), Alan Berstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, said the money going into HIV/AIDS research had decreased because of the economic downturn and competing global health priorities.

Anastassios Pouris, director of the Institute for Technological Innovation at the University of Pretoria and co-author of the study, told SciDev.Net that the levelling out of HIV/AIDS publications started in 1996 when highly active antiretroviral therapies (HAART) reduced death rates in developed countries.

But while South African HIV/AIDS research output is on the rise, there is "no way" South African researchers can resolve the HIV/AIDS issue on their own, Pouris said. HIV/AIDS has to an extent become mainly a developing world concern, he said, calling on South Africa to involve the rest of the world in researching the disease.

"The emphasis [in South Africa] is on social sciences because the pandemic creates social concerns," Pouris said. "However, it will be hard science that provides the solution." Hard sciences, such as biochemistry and pharmacology, are under-emphasised in South African HIV/AIDS research, he said.

Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition in New York, said: "Compared to 20 years ago much more money is being invested in AIDS vaccine research." But he added that "maybe some countries have been less supportive than they could have been."

"What is needed from the international donor community now is sustained funding," said Warren. "Otherwise good work that has taken years to build will be lost."

A funding conference in New York this month (5 October) failed to raise the US$20 billion estimated by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to be needed to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.