- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 26, 2012

Women’s issues, ranging from fighting off opportunistic cancers among HIV-infected women to addressing the rights of prostitutes, dominated AIDS 2012 on Thursday.

The conference, which has drawn some 25,000 AIDS activists, researchers and public health workers to the District, concludes Friday with remarks by former President Bill Clinton.

On Thursday, former first lady Laura Bush took the stage to praise the conference attendees for their courage and persistence even as she brought up the next battle: helping women who live with HIV stave off other deadly diseases.

Thanks to antiretroviral therapies, millions of men and women are able to live with the HIV infection, Mrs. Bush said Thursday.

But “because we’re seeing women living with AIDS — but dying of cervical cancer — the George W. Bush Institute has launched the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon” campaign, she said.

The campaign is supported by the U.S. State Department, which runs the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief; UNAIDS; Susan G. Komen for the Cure; and several foundations and corporations.

The campaign provides screening and treatment of breast and cervical cancer of women in the developing world; pink ribbons are associated with breast cancer and red ribbons with AIDS.

“Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in sub-Saharan Africa and … it’s up to five times more common in women whose immune systems are already compromised by HIV,” Mrs. Bush said.

Earlier this month, she said, she and former President George W. Bush visited Zambia to see how the ribbon campaign they launched in December was doing.

They were “thrilled” to see the progress: Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, which is endorsed by Zambian President Michael Sata and first lady Dr. Christine Kaseba, has expanded from the capital city of Lusaka to health clinics across the country.

“Already, more than 14,000 women have been screened,” Mrs. Bush said. Of these women, nearly 40 percent tested positive for HIV while a third tested positive for cancerous or precancerous cervical cells. Of those women showing signs of cancer, “More than 80 percent could be treated immediately” with a therapy that kills cancer cells by freezing them, she said.

“In our fight against AIDS, we’ve learned that any measure of success requires sustained leadership at every level,” from international organizations to community health workers, the former first lady told the AIDS attendees. “That’s why I’m so grateful for everyone in this audience today …. for your courage and your persistence. You are the proven agents of change around the world.”

Many sessions at AIDS 2012 have focused on pregnant and breast-feeding women, as well as more difficult to serve populations, such as girls who become child brides, teens and sex workers.

Anti-AIDS leaders are now projecting that, with testing and widespread distribution of anti-HIV drugs, the rate of mother-child HIV transmission can be brought to less than 5 percent in a few years, Dr. Chewe Luo, senior adviser on HIV/AIDS for UNICEF, said in her talk Wednesday.

In the United States, where black women are at disproportionately high risk for HIV/AIDS infections compared to other women, the AIDS battle now needs to “meaningfully involve women at all levels of authority,” said Linda Scruggs, director of programs at the AIDS Alliance for Children, Youth & Families.

Some 22 years ago, Ms. Scruggs went in for some routine pregnancy tests and got the devastating news that she was HIV positive. Her journey to health led her to meet countless women from all walks of life who struggled with HIV, often secretly or on their own.

The AIDS response may have originated around the needs of gay males, but it now needs to be expanded to include women of all kinds, Ms. Scruggs told the conference this week.

“I tell you we are at the table,” she said. “We’re here and we’re a force to be reckoned with. We’re changing the game.”

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