- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

A total of 60 scientists from the Department of Health and Human Services will be attending the 15th International AIDS Conference this month in Bangkok, about a quarter of the number who attended the last conference in Spain two years ago.

The reduced presence of Americans at the July 11-16 conference has prompted criticism by some members of Congress and by AIDS activists.

But a spokesman for HHS Tommy G. Thompson defended the change, noting that the government spent $3.6 million to send 236 persons to the AIDS conference in Barcelona in 2002.

The spokesman, William Pierce, said department officials concluded, “This was not the best use of resources in fighting diseases. We felt we could use our resources better.”

He noted that “millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money” have been spent to send hundreds of HHS employees to various conferences around the world. Mr. Pierce said because of concerns about the appropriateness of such expenditures, HHS formalized a new policy last summer that affects attendance at all international conferences.

“The policy says that any time any one agency sends 20 people [to a conference], we’d like to review it,” the HHS spokesman said. “The bottom line is what is the best use of taxpayers’ money?”

Mr. Pierce said it will cost about $250,000 to send 50 HHS employees to Thailand.

Another 10, he said, will be going from posts in Asia.

In addition, he said, the government will spend another $250,000 to sponsor conference attendance for 80 representatives of countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean that receive emergency U.S. help in fighting the AIDS epidemic. The U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) will also send 74 representatives.

Some Democrats in Congress denounced the new policy after reports that 28 researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were forced to cancel presentations at the Bangkok AIDS conference as a result of the attendance cutbacks.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, and Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat, sent a letter to Mr. Thompson, criticizing the move and asking him to reconsider.

“We are writing to protest your decision to stop over two dozen U.S. scientists from presenting peer-reviewed studies and leading research seminars for international colleagues at this summer’s International AIDS Conference,” the House members said in their letter dated June 24. “By grounding these experts, you are keeping them from learning from their peers around the world, and you are depriving the world of scientific leadership by the United States.”

Mr. Pierce said the CDC had known since last year it could send only 20 representatives to the AIDS conference and had overbooked in violation of the new travel restrictions established for HHS employees.

The information these scientists would have presented in person in Bangkok could be presented via teleconferences, he said. “With all the modern technology available, there’s not a great need to actually be somewhere,” said Mr. Pierce.

Mr. Pierce characterized the objections raised by House Democrats as “more about politics than any kind of genuine concern.”

In a related development, a study of more than 1,000 Tanzanian women — pregnant and infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — found that daily doses of multivitamins appear to slow down the disease and cut in half the risk of getting full-blown AIDS.

The research, led by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that malnourished women who took a combination of vitamins B,C, and E maintained a higher level of immune cells that allowed them to fight HIV. After six years, 25 percent of women on the multivitamins developed AIDS or died, compared with 31 percent of those who took placebos.

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