AIDS 2012


A few notable leftovers from the big AIDS conference | 

The massive International AIDS Conference always puts out a lot of stories, with this year’s confab focused on emphasizing the positive and hope for “turning the tide” against the pandemic. Here are a few notable stories that you might have missed amid the whirlwind:

The moral economy of AIDS

Reasons why Zambians don’t get tested, don’t seek HIV treatment

PATH CEO Steve Davis asks Is the End of AIDS in sight?

A turning point for faith-based groups working on AIDS

Economist: Aim for victory

AIDS-free generation: What will it mean?

That last one by the “smart global health” gang explores the concept of an “AIDS-free generation” put forth at the confab by Sec. of State Hillary Clinton and others. The article examines several different meanings of the buzz phrase but tends to sidestep the thorny issue of actually accomplishing it.

Getting millions more people on anti-HIV treatment today appears to be the obvious first step, but most governments and donors are cutting donations to this cause (Global Fund) rather than increasing support.

Top 10 hits of the 2012 AIDS conference | 

The 19th International AIDS Conference is over. This year’s conference marked a return to the United States after 22 years of boycott due to our government’s prohibition of HIV-infected visitors, a ban which was repealed by the Obama Administration in 2010.

The theme for AIDS 2012 was “Turning the Tide Together.” Here’s an arbitrary selection of the top 10 hits from the conference:

Flickr, Monica's Dad

1. Orchestrated enthusiasm. This AIDS conference was characterized by ambitious language and hopeful buzz phrases like “End of AIDS” or “Creating an AIDS-free generation.” The idea was to highlight the progress made so far and to promote an even bigger, bolder game plan. Bill Gates was among a minority of speakers and participants who thought it was a bit over-the-top to claim we are on the verge of “ending AIDS.”

Laurie Garrett took it a step further, asking in response to the end-of-AIDS cheerleaders: What are you smoking? Some organizers and experts defended the positive messaging as a necessary defense against growing complacency, cynicism and indifference to the pandemic — and as a boost to policy makers trying to push against cutbacks in spending onAIDS globally.

Tom Paulson

Timothy Brown, Berlin patient, at press conference during AIDS 2012

2. Curing AIDS. The story of Timothy Ray Brown, aka the Berlin Patient, has inspired scientists to explore the possibility of curing AIDS. Brown was cured of his HIV infection by a bone marrow transplant, a risky procedure he received to treat his leukemia and which was reported on Thursday at AIDS 2012 to have also possibly cured two other transplant patients.

Before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth noting that the idea of curing AIDS through bone marrow transplantation is not new. But enough new insights have been gained to make it worth investigating. I should note Seattle scientists are among those looking into this.


3. Yes, Treatment really is Prevention. The idea that you can prevent the spread of AIDS by treating HIV-infected people earlier has gained new scientific evidence and perhaps momentum. Experts now recommend everyone with HIV should be on medication, to improve their health and to reduce the spread of HIV.

The FDA’s recent approval of the HIV treatment drug Truvada to prevent HIV infection in those at high risk (sex workers, the uninfected partner of someone with HIV) was another example of this shift toward seeing treatment as prevention. A new study in Uganda has challenged the claims that this always work, but most studies indicate treatment does prevent spreading HIV.

In any case, the shift has happened so there goes the old treatment-vs-prevention debate.

Flickr, TW Collins

4. Global access to AIDS drugs for the price of Boston’s Big Dig. Or what the military spends (spent?) on air-conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan. About $22 billion. That’s the amount UNAIDS estimates would be needed to get anti-HIV drugs to the 7-9 million more HIV-infected people living in Africa and the developing world.

The good news is that sharp declines in drug prices mediated through distribution programs like the U.S. government’s PEPFAR program and the multilateral Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, more than 8 million people have been put on these life-saving drugs.

The bad news is that almost as many still need these drugs and many rich nations have either flat-lined their funding for AIDS relief overseas or even cut funding. Here’s a good story by NPR’s Richard Knox exploring funding schemes. Continue reading

AIDS 2012: Bill Gates skeptical of ending AIDS anytime soon | 

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The International AIDS Conference, a mega-meeting of more than 20,000 people, has opened here to fanfare, protests, calls to action and (overly?) ambitious proclamations aimed at fighting complacency.

The world’s biggest AIDS conference has returned to the U.S. – to a city with HIV infection rates comparable to some African nations – after 22 years of ‘separation’ due to our government’s ban against HIV-infected visitors. The Obama Administration repealed the travel ban in 2010.

It appears to be a critical moment for the global response to AIDS. The theme of AIDS 2012 is “Turning the Tide Together.”

This positive message has been accompanied by many speakers and organizations here claiming, sometimes in verbatim echo, that we are on the crest of finding a “cure” for AIDS, of creating an “AIDS-free generation” or “the end of AIDS.

  • “We can, with the technology we have today, end the epidemic,” said Mark Dybul, former director of the President George W. Bush’s ground-breaking and successful initiative to get AIDS drugs to Africa known as PEPFAR.
  •  ”We look toward the end of AIDS as something realistic,” said Jim Kim, an activist physician who President Obama recently tapped to take over at the World Bank.
  • “We have everything we need to beat this epidemic,” said Michel Sidibe, director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Most folks here are talking like that and it sounds great, very hopeful. But if you dig a bit deeper, it’s not clear if there’s evidence to support all these claims. Bill Gates, at a plenary talk today, joined the minority of skeptics questioning these rallying cries.

“We don’t have the tools to end the epidemic,” said Gates, citing the lack of an effective AIDS vaccine as the most critical weapon needed to defeat the pandemic.  “Only when we have these new tools can we seriously talk about moving toward the end.” Continue reading