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November 20, 2001

Dear Editor,

There has been much recent discussion on Samoa perhaps holding the cure for AIDS. Many people have called our office at Sautiamai asking if there really is a cure. Unfortunately there is not, and there probably will not be a cure for several more years.

[See: Drug Developed From Samoa Tree Bark Could Eradicate HIV Virus]

We at Sautiamai would like to offer our little understanding of this subject with the hope to clear up this matter, so that the public understands the significance of the mamala tree, otherwise known as Homalanthus nutans by the scientific community.

In the mid 1980s, a scientist named Paul Cox was in Samoa to do research. He spoke with traditional healers (taulasea) about traditional herbal medicine. It was through his research that he learned about the mamala tree, that has been used in Samoa to treat viral hepatitis and other illnesses. When Cox sent these samples of the mamala tree to the National Cancer Institute in 1992, they were able to isolate a part of the plant that "demonstrated powerful effects against HIV in laboratory settings."

That part of the plant is called prostratin. "Lab studies have shown that prostratin not only prevents HIV from infecting human cells, but can also purge HIV from "viral reservoirs" in the body – places that HIV can hide from even the most powerful drugs approved to fight AIDS. Scientists at AIDS ReSearch Alliance of America are hopeful that prostratin has the potential to help eradicate HIV from infected individuals."

"We are still in the early stages of prostratin research," said Irl Barefield, Executive Director of AIDS ReSearch Alliance of America, "but our initial work shows promising results, and we have high hopes of developing a powerful new drug." If successful, prostratin would be used in combination with other AIDS drugs.

Will we find a Vaccine or Cure?

Soon after HIV was identified in 1983, some health officials were predicting that a vaccine would be developed in a couple of years. The search has proven to be much more difficult than anticipated.

The quest for an HIV vaccine dates back to 1987, when the first human trial of a candidate HIV vaccine was tried. Since then, millions and billions of dollars have gone into research efforts. So far, about 30 experimental vaccines have been tested. None have been successful as of yet.

If and when we do find a vaccine, it will not be an alternative to prevention. Because an eventual vaccine is unlikely to be 100% effective, it will have to be used along with awareness and prevention programs.

Why is it so Difficult?

HIV/AIDS is very different from other infectious diseases. For most infectious diseases, the body develops an immune response to an infection, which helps the body recover from disease. Successful vaccines against such diseases therefore stimulates effective immune responses. HIV immobilizes the body’s immune responses, leaving the immune system unable to control infection or prevent disease.

Ten different subtypes of the HIV virus have been identified to date. Scientists do not know yet if they will have to prepare a vaccine for each subtype or if they can do one vaccine for all types.

How Long will it Take?

To find an HIV vaccine will take many years. Experimental vaccines are first tested on animals and the best vaccine candidates can then be selected for possible testing on humans. Testing is then carried out on HIV negative volunteers, in three phases. Only in the last phase does it become clear whether the vaccine works.

Just this past October at the 6th International Congress on AIDS in Asia/Pacific in Melbourne, Australia, which Peati Iupeli and I attended, Dr. Margaret Johnson, a researcher at the US National Institute of Health says that the clinical testing of a candidate will take a minimum of six years, "assuming that everything goes very smoothly, which has never happened in vaccine development for any disease." More likely, she says the process will take nine to 10 years. Some people are in the later stages of testing, and we will have much more knowledge about the effectiveness of the tests within the next year or so.

This information was gathered from UNAIDS, The Medical Research Agencies of America and the National Institute of Health.

For more information or questions about HIV and AIDS, please contact Sautiamai at 26156 or via email at

Let me take this opportunity once again to thank Samoa Observer for your continuous raising and creating of the awareness of this very important and critical subject for Samoa.

Ia manu tele ina Samoa i lenei Aso Sa.

Puletini Tuala

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