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Saturday, June 15, 2024

As the AIDS conference draws to a close, medical scientists concede they are still far from finding a cure for the pandemic

CSMS Magazine Staff WritersGovernments around the world pleaded Friday for a quick solution to finding a cure. The clarion calls came during the closing session of the weeklong International AIDS Conference, the 16th such gathering of scientists and activists since the early days of the AIDS pandemic. Stephen Lewis, the UN Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa, delivered an oratorical barn burner in which he excoriated the government of South Africa, slammed the G-8 countries for not living up to AIDS funding promises and insisted the tragic spread of HIV cannot be halted until gender inequality is righted.            Lewis admitted that in the battle against AIDS, the factor that makes him feel “most helpless and most enraged” is the inequality of women and how that puts them at high risk of becoming infected through rape or by partners who refuse to practice safe sex. “If ever there was a cause to mobilize AIDS activists around the world, this is it,” Lewis said of the enormous problem of violence against women, which too often leads to transmission in countries where infection rates are high. While he noted that sexual violence is not unique to Africa, “in Africa, the violence and the virus go together.”Lewis’s five-year term concludes at the end of this year and his hard-hitting remarks were greeted with sustained and reverential applause.            Though largely spared in the closing ceremonies, the Canadian government took a pounding throughout the conference. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s refusal to attend the opening ceremony and the government’s apparent hesitancy to renew the license for Vancouver’s safe injection site for IV drug users gave rise to heated rhetoric about the new government’s commitment to the fight against HIV-AIDS. The mounting ill will in turn prompted the governing Conservatives to scrap a plan to announce additional AIDS-related assistance during the conference.            “That conference in our view was becoming a place where you couldn’t have a rational discussion,” Health Minister Tony Clement explained Friday at an unrelated event in Nova Scotia. “I think things were way over the top, at least from some of the so-called experts and people that like to have an opinion on these things. “You know the fact of the matter is that Canada was at the conference. We put $6 million to fund the conference. We were present everywhere and I was there for five days out six.”So were roughly 24,000 delegates – scientists, activists, people living with HIV-AIDS – and thousands of journalists. The conference also drew mega-watt stars – former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda Gates, actor Richard Gere. Their presence ensured saturation media coverage – but a number of activists bristled at seeing their issues obscured as a consequence.            If Canada was let off the hook Friday, South Africa took its place. The government of President Thabo Mbeki has confounded and enraged the scientific and public health world by initially denying the link between HIV and AIDS and then resisting the importation of antiretroviral drugs, despite the fact that an estimated 5.5 million people in his country (of 47.5 million) are infected. Mbeki’s health minister, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, promotes the use of lemons, garlic and beet root as treatments for AIDS.            “There is no time to waste and we as a world have sat back for far too long watching South Africa continue to deteriorate in the growing number of millions of people contracting HIV and a health minister that prefers to talk about lemon juice versus bona fide means,” said Dr. Mark Wainberg, an AIDS expert from McGill University who was co-chair of the conference.            The slogan of the conference was “Time to Deliver.” Throughout the week speakers made it clear many of the tools needed to prolong the lives of those with HIV-AIDS and stem the tide of new infections already exist but are not yet fully utilized, either because affordable drugs are still beyond the reach of the world’s poor or because religious, ideological or cultural beliefs remain a barrier to condom use and needle-exchange programs for injection drug users.            Many speakers railed against those barriers. The U.S. government’s insistence that abstinence be a pillar of any AIDS program it funds was a popular target throughout the week and drew one last salvo from Lewis on Friday. “Abstinence only programs do not work,” he intoned.               Discussion of potential new tools was also a major focus of the conference. They include a new and promising class of AIDS drugs called integrase inhibitors, the need for a microbicide which women could use to protect themselves against infection, the use of AIDS drugs to block infection, the possibility that wider use of circumcision could reduce infections among men and the elusive holy grail of HIV – a vaccine.Note: Information from the Toronto Star contributed to this report.

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