AIDS Conference: Thousands Gather to Talk Cures, Treatments and Funding for the Global Epidemic

Doctors, lawmakers and activists converge on Washington, D.C. to find solutions for the worldwide AIDS epidemic.

Elton John AIDS Conference

Elton John, front, takes a tour of the AIDS Memorial Quilts during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images)

Jeannine Stein, a California native, wrote about health for the Los Angeles Times. In her pursuit of a healthy lifestyle she has taken countless fitness classes, hiked in Nepal and got in a boxing ring.

A cure for HIV, increased virus infection rates, and money for AIDS research are just some of the topics being talked about at the 19th International AIDS Conference that kicked off yesterday in Washington, D.C.

More than 25,000 scientists, physicians, activists and others are said to be attending the biannual meeting, where new research and information on the epidemic of HIV and AIDS is being shared. The conference, which goes through Friday, is the first to be held in the U.S. in 22 years.

“Our return to the United States after a 22-year absence comes at a time of extraordinary hope, a time when we believe that the end of the AIDS epidemic is possible,” Elly Katabira, the international chair of the conference and president of the International AIDS Society, said in a news release.

The meeting comes on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the HIV treatment drug Truvada, for prevention among high-risk, HIV-negative people. Although the news was cheered by many in the AIDS community, much more needs to be done globally to combat the disease.

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“There is no doubt, that our progress over the past 30 years has been impressive, but maintaining the status quo is simply not enough,” Dr. Diane Havlir, the conference’s U.S. co-chair, said in a statement. Havlir, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, added, “My message to policy makers around the entire world watching us here in D.C. is this—invest in science, invest in the epidemic—you will save lives.”

Among the highlights of the conference:

  • A study out of Emory University finds alarming rates of HIV infection among black and bisexual men. The study’s aim was to examine new infection rates among black men who have sex with men (MSM). Researchers followed 1,553 MSM in six major U.S. Cities from 2009 to 2011 and found that the new infection rate among black MSM was 2.3 percent a year, almost 50 percent higher than in white MSM. For black MSM under the age of 30, the new infection rate was 5.9 percent a year, three times the rate among white MSM. Overall the infection rate of black MSM in the U.S. is comparable to the rate seen among the general population in sub-Saharan African countries that are heavily affected by HIV.
  • A session at the conference called for countries to stop travel restrictions on people living with HIV. Around the world, 46 countries, territories, and areas have some form of restriction denying entry to people with HIV, a news release said. “In many cases,” it reads, “these restrictions were put in place when there was great fear and little knowledge about how HIV was transmitted and what the health implications were of being HIV positive.” In 2009 President Obama overturned the U.S. ban on travel and immigration among people with HIV.
  • Research in the journal Nature says a cure for HIV is possible, if research in that area continues. Although innovations have been seen in HIV treatments that prove effecting at prolonging life and improving the quality of life for those with the virus, those drugs have limitations and don’t provide a cure. A release from the International AIDS Society said that for every person starting HIV treatment, two more become infected. “Finding a cure for AIDS is a critical innovation gap,” executive director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibe said in the release.

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  • Testing communities for HIV and offering people immediate care and treatment may be an effective way to keep people healthy and reduce the spread of the virus. Researchers from the U.S. and Uganda presented findings from the study, which focused on a remote area of southwest Uganda. Out of 4,343 people who were offered HIV testing, about three-quarters accepted. Among them, 189 people tested positive, and almost half of those cases were new diagnoses. Those who tested positive were able to get care, and those with more advanced HIV were offered immediate treatment.
  • Antiretroval drugs for HIV are proving beneficial for patients, but not as much as researchers hoped. A study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found that the percentage of 32,483 HIV patients in the U.S. who got the full benefit of antiretroviral drugs went from 45 percent to 72 percent from 2001 to 2010. However, that number was below previous estimates of 77 percent to 87 percent. “If the HIV virus is not fully suppressed, individuals are at risk of transmitting HIV to others in the community,” lead author Dr. Baligh Yehia said in a news release.

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  • More people may be increasingly resistant to HIV drugs in sub-Saharan Africa, an online study in The Lancet reports. Researchers analyzed studies and World Health Organization data from 2001 through 2011 that included 26,102 patients from sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They saw a substantial rise in the prevalence of drug resistance in areas of sub-Saharan Africa since antiretroviral drugs were introduced.  Although the authors said the findings are troubling, in light of the sizeable growth of antiretroviral treatment in these areas the numbers aren’t unexpected, and the study authors said no changes in treatment are currently needed.
  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. would donate $80 million in new funding for worldwide efforts to combat HIV and AIDS, The Hill reported. 
“The United States is committed and will remain committed to achieving an AIDS-free generation,” she was quoted as saying. The money will go toward treatments for pregnant women who have the virus, as well as voluntary male circumcisions and various research projects.

What would you like to see accomplished during the International AIDS Conference? Let us know in the comments.

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