- Associated Press - Monday, July 9, 2012

An AIDS-free generation: It seems an audacious goal, considering how the HIV epidemic still is raging around the world.

Yet more than 20,000 international HIV researchers and activists will gather in Washington later this month with a sense of optimism not seen in many years - hope that it finally may be possible to dramatically stem the spread of the AIDS virus.

“We want to make sure we don’t overpromise,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health’s infectious disease chief, told the Associated Press. But, he said, “I think we are at a turning point.”

The big new focus is on trying to get more people with HIV treated early, when they’re first infected, instead of waiting until they are weakened or sick, as the world largely has done until now. Staying healthier also makes them less likely to infect others.

“It saves lives of people who are infected, and it saves lives of people by not allowing them to get infected,” Dr. Fauci said.

That’s a tall order. But studies over the past two years have shown what Dr. Fauci calls “striking, sometimes breathtaking results,” in preventing people at high risk of HIV from getting it in some of the hardest-hit countries, using this treatment-as-prevention and some other protections.

Now, as the International AIDS Conference returns to the U.S. for the first time in 22 years, the question is whether the world will come up with the money and the know-how to put the best combinations of protections into practice, for AIDS-ravaged poor countries and hot spots in developed nations as well.

“We have the tools to make it happen,” said Dr. Elly Katabira, president of the International AIDS Society, which organizes the world’s largest HIV conference, set for July 22 to 27. He points to strides already in Botswana and Rwanda in increasing access to AIDS drugs.

But Dr. Fauci cautioned that moving those tools into everyday life is “a daunting challenge,” given the costs of medications and the difficulty in getting people to take them for years.

In the U.S., part of that challenge is complacency. Despite 50,000 new HIV infections here every year, an AP-GfK poll finds that very few people in the U.S. worry about getting the virus.

The conference will spotlight this city’s aggressive steps to fight back: A massive effort to find the undiagnosed, with routine testing in some hospitals, testing vans that roam the streets, even free tests at a Department of Motor Vehicles office, and then rapidly getting those patients into care.

A few miles east of the U.S. Capitol and the tourist-clogged monuments, the Community Education Group’s HIV testing van pulls into a parking lot in a low-income neighborhood with a particularly high infection rate. An incentive for the crowd at a nearby corner is the offer of a $10 supermarket gift card for getting tested.

Christopher Freeman, 23, is first in line. He was tested earlier this year and says showing off that official paper proclaiming him HIV-negative attracts “the ladies.”

“Forget money, it’s the best thing you can show them,” he said.