By Rex Wockner
TORONTO Some 24,000 delegates from 170 nations attended the 16th International AIDS Conference Aug. 13-18 in Toronto.
In an opening-session address, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, called for increased focus on women, accelerated research on microbicides, and stepped-up global prevention and treatment efforts. Other celebrity attendees included Bill Clinton and Richard Gere.
“These are the things that I think we have to do as we leave here,”
Clinton said. “Money. Money spent more effectively. Prevention. More testing – not compulsory but voluntary and empowering. Lifting the status of women. Continuing the search for medical answers through microbicides and vaccines. Reaching the hard-to-reach population. Developing the infrastructure. And getting treatment out to every single soul who needs it.”
More than 4,500 scientific abstracts were presented. Key areas of focus included vaccines, new types of treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis (giving HIV drugs to HIV-negative individuals at high risk for infection) and the connection between HIV and tuberculosis. Much attention was paid to the vast disparities in prevention and treatment across the planet.
“There are still far too many instances where punitive laws, stigma,
gender inequities and lack of access to needed prevention and care
services conspire to fuel the HIV pandemic,” said conference Co-Chair Dr. Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill University AIDS Centre.
Dr. Julie Overbaugh of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle highlighted accumulating evidence that HIV-positive individuals who engage in unprotected sex risk becoming reinfected with a different strain of the virus that could be more aggressive or drug-resistant.
At the same time, Dr. Julio Montaner of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS cited emerging evidence that HIV-positive people whose viral load is undetectable due to successful antiretroviral therapy are “very unlikely” to transmit the virus during unprotected sex.
Other scientists quickly responded that such transmission does happen nonetheless.
On Aug. 17, members of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign physically attacked the South African government’s exhibit booth, which suggested garlic, olive oil, lemon and beets are HIV treatments. They chanted, “Fire Manto now.”
South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has been under sustained fire from activists for several years for promoting unorthodox HIV “treatments,” suggesting that standard HIV drugs are poisonous, and questioning whether HIV is the cause of AIDS.
About one-seventh of South Africa’s 47 million citizens are believed to be HIV-positive.