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The XIX International AIDS conference concluded on July 27 and revealed ways in which tides are turning in the fight against the global pandemic. Maryknollers from Peru, Guatemala, Namibia and Washington, D.C. attended many of the activities surrounding this year’s conference. The following article, published in the September-October 2012 NewsNotes, is based on reports written by Sr. Veronica Schweyen, MM and Fr. Joseph Fedora, MM.

For the first time, the scientific community, as well as people infected and affected by the HIV virus, have reason to believe that the next generation will be AIDS free. Recent scientific evidence demonstrates that it is possible; what is needed is the economic and political will to see it through. The theme of this year’s conference was aptly named for this moment in time: “Together we can TURN THE TIDE.”

Scientists are excited about progress made on the development of an AIDS vaccine. The 2009 Thailand Trials – RV144 –showed for the first time “proof of concept” with a 31 percent efficacy rate (at least a 70-80 percent efficacy rate must be demonstrated for a vaccine to be considered practical). Such a vaccine could potentially reduce HIV transmission by 80 percent in 20 years. The positive results of the Thailand Trials open up new areas of investigation.  Experts concur that at least another 10 years of accelerated research are needed.

It is estimated that for every person starting antiretroviral therapy (ART), two are newly infected, a path that is clearly unsustainable. Given these limitations, there is growing recognition that the search for an HIV cure is an imperative. While the search for a cure continues, a tangible sign of the success of ART was demonstrated at this year’s conference in that a number of sessions focused on children and adolescents growing up with HIV. More than three million children live with HIV and many of them are reaching adulthood. This proves the success of the 2002 goals set by UNAIDS: By 2005 three million people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWH) were receiving ART. By 2010 this increased to over five million, and now in 2012 the goal is to have 15 million people on ART by 2015. This means reaching seven million people in three years. A difficult task but with sustained political will and follow-through on previous commitments the world is well on its way to achieving this goal.

While there is much to celebrate, realities that the international community has wrestled with since the first AIDS diagnosis persist. As the world deals with economic downturns traditional donor countries have tightened their belts in regard to international health programs. The mobilization of resources to reverse infection rates, treat people and continue vaccine research remains a serious issue. On the second day of the conference over 10,000 people participated in a march for change raising a number of issues including the need for an international financial transaction tax to raise the necessary funds to continue the fight against HIV and AIDS.

The march also highlighted the issue of infection rates in women ages 15-24 globally being twice as high as that of men of the same age. Around the world there are settings where women have little say or power or control over sex. Education and behavior change are highly necessary, not only to prevent the disease, but to stem the stigma that has accompanied the disease. A participant in the interfaith preconference shared that “Stigma still kills people through rejection and the isolation that it causes.” 

In some cases this stigma leads to the criminalization of people living with HIV and AIDS by governments. A small glimmer of hope in this regard was the fact that Washington, D.C. hosted the conference: A recent presidential order lifted a 20-year travel restriction that had prevented people living with HIV and AIDS from entering the United States.

Concluding his report of the International AIDS conference, Maryknoll Fr. Joseph Fedora writes: “I believe with all my heart that if we are going to TURN THE TIDE on the AIDS epidemic, it must begin with unconditional love and compassion. Unless the fear, stigma and self-loathing disappear, the amazing advances and scientific achievements in the fight against AIDS will be less effective. Together – via the heart and brain – we will TURN THE TIDE and maybe even live to see an AIDS-free generation!”