Coburn: Skip Europe AIDS meeting

An upcoming international AIDS conference in Europe should be canceled, says a Republican senator who wants organizers to use money for travel and meetings on treatment and research instead.

In a letter sent last week to the president of the International AIDS Society, which is organizing this summer’s 2010 AIDS Conference in Vienna, Austria, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a doctor, cited statistics showing that tens of millions of people across the world infected with HIV are going without treatment.

“While I recognize the International AIDS Conference can provide a unique forum for networking, reviewing scientific developments and sharing information for many stakeholders, modern technology allows us to accomplish these goals for relatively little cost,” Dr. Coburn wrote in his Feb. 19 letter to a conference organizer.

“While these alternatives may not include the museum and castle tours, the visit to Mozart’s birth place, or wine tasting offered by the upcoming gathering in Vienna, they can meet the main goals of the conference.” The letter cites details about wine tasting and other events from the conference’s Web site.

It’s unclear how many of the roughly 25,000 people expected to attend will be federal employees whose travel and lodging costs will be picked up by taxpayers, but a report by Dr. Coburn’s office disclosed that hundreds of thousands of dollars was spent to send more than 100 federal employees to the 2008 International AIDS Conference.

Dr. Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society, responded in a letter to Dr. Coburn defending the meetings.

“My colleagues and I firmly believe that it would be foolhardy in the midst of such significant investments to not take the opportunity every two years to assess progress to date, generate new ideas and strategies and chart a collective course forward,” the AIDS official wrote.

While noting that more information is being shared electronically, he also pointed to benefits from previous conferences of the “in-person exchange of information, ideas and energy.”

After the 2008 conference, Dr. Coburn issued a 19-page oversight report concluding that taxpayers spend millions of dollars to send federal employees “to talk about a disease, when instead, using the same funds for prevention, treatment or research would almost certainly be a better use of taxpayer resources.”

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