The 19th International AIDS Conference opened Sunday night with an expression of gratitude for America's tremendous investments in the fight against the deadly disease — and a declaration that "we can start to end AIDS."
"America has been the leading contributor to all HIV-related services and programs around the world," Dr. Elly Katabira, president of the International AIDS Society and co-chair of AIDS 2012 said at the opening ceremony of the convention, which has drawn more than 21,000 people from around the world to the Walter E. Williams Convention Center.
Through the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief and other funding programs, "millions of HIV-infected people have been put on lifesaving treatments," and through the National Institutes of Health and other U.S. academic efforts, thousands of health workers around the globe were trained and this transformed health care delivery, training and research, said Dr. Katabira.
"We are at a defining moment," said Dr. Diane V. Havlir, chief of HIV/AIDS division at the University of California at San Francisco and conference co-chairwoman. "Our big idea, which many didn't think was on the horizon five years ago, is that we can start to end AIDS."
In a moving presentation, actress Sharon Stone gave the first Elizabeth Taylor Human Rights Award to "a pair of courageous, compassionate men" -- Dr. Arash Alaei and his brother, Dr. Kamiar Alaei, who pioneered prevention and treatment efforts in Iran. Their efforts became a best-practices model in the Middle East, but they ran afoul of authorities and were imprisoned. Both are free now, and attending the conference as delegates.
The weeklong convention continues Monday with presentations by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, musician Elton John and AIDS leaders from around the world.
Besides the wealth of scientific research presentations and hundreds of exhibits, convention goers and the public are invited to visit the AIDS quilt on the National Mall. The quilt, which is cared for by the NAMES Project Foundation, is too large to be displayed in one place, so some 35,000 different panels will be shown on the Mall during the convention, while thousands more panels will be displayed in 50 venues around the District.
Earlier Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that there is still "a long way to go" to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but there's no scientific reason the world can't move toward the day when HIV infections and deaths from AIDS are rare.
Despite the many remaining challenges to achieve an "AIDS-free generation," "the fact remains that right now today, in the summer of 2012, 31 years after the first case was reported, there is no excuse, scientifically, to say we cannot do it," said Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"What we need now is the political, organizational and individual will to implement what science has given us," he said at a media briefing by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) at the 19th International AIDS Conference in the District.
Dr. Fauci recalled how he became an "AIDS physician" in summer 1981, when the first cases of the deadly sickness were reported in a group of gay men in Los Angeles. Back then, "the only thing we could do was put Band-Aid on hemorrhages" of desperately ill patients, Dr. Fauci said.
But the discovery of the virus, HIV testing, antiretroviral therapy -- which decreases HIV viral load to undetectable levels and decreases the likelihood of transmission -- combined with prevention and global campaigns against the disease, have all begun to force down the trajectory of the disease, he said.
"We still have a long way to go" to end the epidemic, as worldwide, there are 2.5 million new HIV infections, 1.7 million deaths, and 34 million people living with HIV, he said. But "if you go from 2.7 million new infections a year to 2.5 million, that's good because you've gone down."
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