Optimism high for AIDS conference

‘We really do think we are at a turning point,’ says co-chairman

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The annual International AIDS Conference comes to Washington after 30 million deaths in about 30 years — but at a time that conference organizers see as a potential turning point in the fight against the deadly virus, thanks to a series of scientific breakthroughs.

The theme of this year’s event is “turning the tide together,” said Dr. Diane V. Havlir, co-chairman of the 19th International AIDS Conference.

“We have lost 30 million people already to the epidemic, the second-largest epidemic since the Black Plague,” she said. But “we really do think we are at a turning point,” due to breakthroughs that should “curb the number of new infections and death from AIDS,” she said.

Some 21,000 people from every part of the world will come to the U.S. capital to discuss ways to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which still sees 2.7 million new infections a year — including almost 50,000 in America — three decades after the virus was discovered in a group of gay men in California.

New research is the heart of these massive conferences, and nearly 4,000 abstracts are scheduled to be made available at AIDS 2012. The Lancet on Thursday released a series on HIV/AIDS in men who have sex with men, while the Journal of the American Medical Association is offering its latest research on HIV/AIDS on Sunday.

Among the U.S. luminaries scheduled to attend the Sunday-through-Friday event are former President Bill Clinton; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; former first lady Laura Bush; billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates; Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby; and Academy Award-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg.

Other high-profile speakers include pop singer Elton John, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe and Nobel Prize-winning virologist Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, president-elect of the International AIDS Society in Paris.

President Obama is scheduled to address the AIDS 2012 conference in a video, as is former President George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama is already viewed as a champion of the cause because in 2009 he lifted the 1987 ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants to the U.S., paving the way for the International AIDS Society to choose Washington for its 2012 convention. Some 21,000 persons are registered, but another 10,000 are expected to visit the conference’s public exhibits, organizers said.

The week will be packed with sessions and workshops on subjects ranging from how HIV infections affect siblings to how to kill, cure or treat the virus. Many sessions can be viewed on webcasts at http://aids2012.org.

The AIDS vaccine is “the holy grail, of course,” said Victoria A. Harden, the now-retired historian at the National Institutes of Health. She is the author of the new book, “AIDS at 30: A History,” an authoritative recounting of the medical and public health responses to the June 5, 1981, report on the alarming cluster of new, fatal sicknesses in gay men in Los Angeles.

“AIDS is not like other infectious diseases,” noted Ms. Harden.

With other diseases, most everybody recovers, and nature therefore provides a model for a vaccine because a vaccine mimics the natural process of recovery, she explained.

With AIDS, though, “if you get full-blown AIDS, you don’t survive. And so nature doesn’t give us a model” for a vaccine, and that’s why it’s been so hard to figure out, said Ms. Harden.

At preconference events, advocates focused on research to find a vaccine or cure; stepping up treatment for all infected persons; campaigns to reduce new infections; and enhanced funding for AIDS surveillance, treatment and prevention.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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