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‘We can end AIDS,’ international conference told

In this April 4, 2012 photo, women affected by AIDS share stories of survival at the Reach Out clinic on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda. The clinic receives money from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. There is no cure yet and no vaccine. But recent research suggests it finally may be possible to dramatically stem the spread of the AIDS virus, even in some of the hardest-hit and poorest countries, such as Uganda.

Rodney Muhumuza/AP

We have the scientific knowledge to stop the global HIV-AIDS pandemic in its tracks and there's no excuse for not acting.

That's the blunt yet ultimately positive message delivered at the opening of the International AIDS Conference in Washington on Sunday.

"We can, with the technology we have today, end the epidemic," said Mark Dybul, the former director of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. (PEPFAR, which has spent $44-billion [U.S.] to date, is one of the biggest funders of HIV-AIDS prevention in the world.)

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"If we implement, in a systematic way, the tools we have today, it will save millions of lives and a lot of money," he said.

That will be the focus of the 19th International AIDS Conference, which has attracted about 25,000 delegates from 195 countries – scientists, politicians, technocrats, activists and people living with HIV-AIDS – under the theme "Turning the Tide Together."

The big unknown, however, is whether the prospect of ending the pandemic will be enough to maintain the interest of funders – the governments, foundations and non-governmental organizations who continue to pony up $16.8-billion a year despite a global recession, and who are being told the amount required will hit $24-billion by 2015.

"We are being overwhelmed with complacency because we don't see light at the end of the tunnel," Mr. Dybul said.

The hope comes from ever-improving numbers related to the pandemic that has left 34 million living with HIV today, and killed some 30 million others.

The light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel statistics :

  • AIDS deaths are down 24 per cent since they peaked in 2005;
  • The number of people newly infected with HIV continues to drop, hitting its lowest level since 2001;
  • The number of children infected has dropped 24 per cent in just two years;
  • There are eight million people with HIV taking life-prolonging drug cocktails, up from only thousands a decade ago.

The only reason those numbers aren't even better is that measures that work have not been rolled out faster. And that's why, for the first time, scientists are now talking openly about the prospect of an AIDS-free generation.

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"The fact remains that right now, today, in the summer of 2012, 31 years after the first cases were reported, there is no excuse scientifically to say we cannot do it," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The impediment, Dr. Fauci said, is not science, but politics.

"What we need now is the political, organizational and individual will to implement what science has given us."

The foot-dragging has caused a lot of carnage. To wit:

  • There were 1.7 million AIDS deaths in 2011;
  • Despite all the prevention efforts, there are still 2.5 million new infections annually;
  • Last year, 330,000 newborns contracted HIV, even though mother-to-child transmission is 100-per-cent preventable;
  • While eight million people are being treated with drug cocktails, there are at least seven million more who could benefit but who don’t have access.

Yet there is, perhaps for the first time, a conviction that things are moving in the right direction, though not fast enough.

"We can end AIDS," Michel Sidibé, the executive director of UNAIDS, told conference delegates. "But this opportunity will evaporate if we do not act."

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Dr. Sibidé said that after decades responding to AIDS as series of regional emergencies, the time has come for better planning and more deliberate action.

"We have to begin thinking of how to get to zero," Dr. Sidibé said.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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