AIDS Conference Rallies Around Cause
As Told to Jill Hudson Neal
More than 30 years after the discovery of the HIV virus, scientists around the world are still searching for a cure for the disease. This summer Washington will host the International AIDS Conference, a collection of events, panels, and seminars, and a large-scale rally that is expected to draw more than 20,000 people, who will descend on the National Mall to raise awareness about the worldwide pandemic. Capitol File asked three prominent HIV/AIDS advocates to meet at The Jefferson hotel over breakfast to talk about what the conference will mean to Washington and the world.
Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hospitality and producer of The Other City, a documentary about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington: We’re chatting just prior to the International AIDS conference and rally here in DC, where leaders in the battle against HIV/ AIDS will convene on the National Mall in July. What is the importance of these events?
Dr. Warner Greene, President of Accordia Global Health Foundation: This is the first time that an international AIDS conference has come to the United States since the early years of the discovery of the virus. The United States wouldn’t allow individuals with HIV to [obtain a visa] here until recently. So I view this as a renewal of focus and a real opportunity to bring HIV/AIDS back to public awareness in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Don Blanchon, CEO of Whitman-Walker Health: I hope we can have a sense of renewed commitment and hope around the science that has emerged in the past 36 months or so, and the research that led us to believe that we can use treatment as prevention. And just having the energy, talent, and knowledge that more than 20,000 people bring to any one location will be tremendous. Everyone who attends will be able to take that energy and knowledge back to their communities.
SJ: What are the most important strides, in your estimation, in the 30 years of work since the discovery of the virus?
WG: It’s important to remember that the epidemic is not over, and it’s not only over there [in other countries]. Yet on the flip side, I’ve never been more excited about the possibility of finding true prevention, true therapies. Already we’re seeing infection rates decreasing in 22 African countries. We’re seeing that this epidemic is slowly yielding to the antiviral therapies. It’s not hopeless, and as Secretary Clinton said a while ago, it is appropriate to aim for having an AIDS-free generation. I’m more cautiously optimistic today than five years ago about our chances to truly curb and ultimately end this epidemic—the fourth biggest killing epidemic of all time.
DB: For me, after three decades, it’s a question of the past being prologue, and honoring and loving the people we lost. The best way to do that is to defeat HIV. There’s no way around it. You don’t want their lives to not have meant something.
SJ: What challenges still lie ahead?
WG: A big issue sure to confront the HIV epidemic in the United States and throughout the developed world—one that hasn’t hit the developing world—is the notion of HIV and aging. In the US, we’re now seeing that 25 percent of HIV-infected individuals are over the age of 50. They are dying of heart disease, dementia, cancer—the same diseases that we will all die of—but dying 10 to 20 years earlier. We’re just starting to scratch the surface of this problem, but something is accelerating their aging process.
DB: At Whitman-Walker, it’s not uncommon to diagnose someone over age 50 at least once a month. What’s striking is when you go in and ask about the personal story behind what happened, they’ll say, “Well I’m older, and if I get it, so what?” The other problem I’m seeing is that the District is still adding about 750 people a year who are newly diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. That’s 7,500 people in 10 years, so the fight on the front side to stop new infections is huge. We have to get to zero.
SJ: I think it needs to be stressed that HIV isn’t just in the African-American community here in the District. It crosses all kinds of socioeconomic lines and color barriers.
DB: The virus doesn’t care about your socioeconomic status. I think there’s still this notion that the disease only affected white gay men or others in the Africa-American community. But if you live in the District, there isn’t an adult who doesn’t face some kind of risk. One of the fastest-growing groups of those infected are young Latino men. They’re not out, but they’re having sex with other men. Also, African-American women over the age of 35—that’s another at-risk population. It’s not as if you can isolate a certain group.
SJ: What work is left to be done?
WG: We need to find an effective way of preventing people who have not been infected from becoming infected. The missing piece that can be the game changer worldwide is a vaccine. And for the first time, there has been a hint of success in the vaccine area. The other thing we need desperately is a cure for those who are infected. The NIH is now investing heavily in cure research. We would not have even said that word two years ago. So there’s a lot of collaborative work going on around a cure. But we can find it.
Organizers of the International AIDS Conference (accordiafoundation.org; aids2012.org), to be held in DC from July 22 to 27, expect 20,000 delegates from 200 countries, taking part in nearly 300 Global Village activities, 250 sessions, and 150 satellite meetings.
photography by getty images (clintons, the quilt, march); joshua cogan (johnson)
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.