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AIDS Meet Ends with Talk of Cure, But Realities of Scourge Persist

WASHINGTON, Jul 28 2012 (IPS) - As the International AIDS Conference ended in Washington on Friday, organisers unveiled groundbreaking new research on the promise of early anti-retroviral (ARV) drug therapy.

The announcement came amid urgent calls from advocates and activists for governments and agencies to do much more to make those drugs available to everyone who needs them.

The biannual conference drew 24,000 delegates from 83 countries and marked the first time the conference has been held in the United States in more than two decades. In 2009, President Barack Obama ended a ban that prevented HIV-positive travelers from coming into the U.S. that had been in place for 22 years.

In a study that was released on Thursday at the conference, a group of patients in France called the Visconti Cohort started taking ARVs shortly after their infection with the HIV virus. After six years, patients stopped taking their drugs but did not experience resurgence in the virus. Even after stopping therapy, patients in the Visconti group had similar levels of HIV in their cells as a control group.

The study was conducted by the French National Agency for Research on AIDS and Viral Hepatitis (ANRS) under the direction of lead research Charline Bacchus, who presented the findings.

“These results suggest that the antiretroviral treatment should be started very early after infection,” Bacchus said Thursday at the conference.

Tapping a deep wellspring of hope for an end to AIDS – an end researchers say could be near – a Friday press release hinted at a “cure”. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the goal of a “generation that is free of AIDS”.

But excitement surrounding the promise of ARVs and the announcement of breakthrough research contrasted with the realities of a disease that continues to kill, realities activists and advocates from the international HIV / AIDS community urged policy-makers to address.

While ARV drugs are known to prevent transmission in 96 percent of cases if started early and taken regularly, not everyone has access to those drugs. Worldwide, only one out of two people has access to ARVs, and in the U.S., 750,000 HIV-positive individuals remain untreated.

Proposed government cuts would slash 214 million dollars in funding to the U.S.’s signature bilateral anti-AIDS programme, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The programme has been credited with reducing the death rate in certain countries by 10 percent.

Activists and advocates this week urged leaders to continue funding for such programmes and keep HIV/AIDS in focus. Thousands of people from more than 47 member organisations rallied under the banner of the “We Can End AIDS” coalition this week in Washington.

They marched to the White House and called on world leaders to commit resources not only to increasing accessibility to life-saving drugs, but to stabilising community services that support treatment and adherence to drug regimens, such as housing.

“Housing has proven over and over again to increase stability for people who are marginalised,” said Chuck Christen, a conference delegate and public health doctor with Prevention Point in Pittsburgh, an organisation dedicated to providing health support services to injection drug users.

“Through housing programmes they (HIV-positive individuals) are linked to so many services,” Christen told IPS.

Christen also said he supported changes in U.S. policy that would lift a ban on syringe exchanges, or the public provision of clean syringes, which he said was proven to reduce transmission of HIV among injection drug users. In a larger but related demand, marchers called for an end to policies that punitively criminalised drug users and called for support services for those individuals instead.

Among other demands, activists asked policy-makers end free trade policies they said drove up prices for HIV/ AIDS drugs, and scale up tuberculosis screening and treatment programmes. Tuberculosis is a major cause of death among AIDS patients globally, and the theme of this year’s AIDS convention was “Turning the Tide on TB/HIV”.

These programmes, experts in the field say, are not just supplemental: they are necessary. Yogan Pillay, deputy director general of Strategic Health Programmes at the National Department of Health, South Africa, spoke at a plenary session of the conference on Friday. He said drugs would only be effective in the context of other programmes.

“If we don’t work closely with civil society, we won’t get good adherence (to drug regimens), which is a prerequisite for” reducing transmission, Pillay said Friday.

Nadine Bloch is coordinator of “We Can End AIDS National Coalition.” Bloch said science no longer stood in the way of ending the HIV/AIDS crisis.

“We have the science,” she told IPS. “We know how to do it, and we need for all governments and all agencies to put the resources in place to end the epidemic.”

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