Former President Bill Clinton closed out the 19th International AIDS Conference by urging activists to not lose heart, but to press forward to bring an end to the deadly disease.
The AIDS battle has come a long way, said Mr. Clinton, recalling how a decade ago he and South African leader Nelson Mandela went to the AIDS conference in Barcelona “and we were literally rattling a tin cup for money.”
Now there are exciting research developments, hefty financial commitments and ambitious goals set for 2015. Eight million people are already on anti-HIV drugs, and there’s the ability to treat the millions more who need it, said Mr. Clinton, who started the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) in 2002 to address HIV/AIDS in the developing world.
On Friday, CHAI released a study showing that HIV treatment costs in four African countries have fallen to about $200 per patient per year. This includes the costs of health personnel, testing and drugs, and shows that universal access to high-quality HIV treatment is “achievable, sustainable and within our means,” said Mr. Clinton.
“You should be really excited by this moment,” he told the conferees. “We will do well as long as we refuse to let what we don’t have slow us down.”
The week-long conference, described by one attendee as “the Olympics of the HIV world,” drew some 25,000 activists, public health workers, researchers and visitors. It focused on treatment, a cure and a vaccine, as well as outreach to affected populations.
“This is the first meeting we have talked about a cure for HIV” and “this is the first time we all agree that ending mother-to-child transmission is within our reach globally,” said conference co-chairman Dr. Diane Havlir, a professor of medicine at University of California at San Francisco.
Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, the incoming president of the International AIDS Society (IAS) and Nobel laureate in medicine for her work discovering the HIV virus, promised to “put all my heart” into ending “stigma, discrimination, violence and repressive policies” and ensuring “equal access” to prevention, treatment and care.
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Whoopi Goldberg lamented the scourge of tuberculosis in developing countries.
As an American in a country with record-low levels of new TB infections — 10,521 cases in 2011 — “who knew that TB was something we had to be concerned with?” the Academy Award-winning actress asked.
But with 1.4 million TB deaths worldwide in 2010, TB is a dangerous disease, especially among those living with HIV infection and babies and children, who can become infected by their family members, said Miss Goldberg.
She urged anti-HIV efforts to include screenings and treatment for TB, too.
“To end AIDS, we have to join together to tackle TB and HIV as one disease,” Miss Goldberg said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, promised the conferees that the Affordable Care Act would deliver substantial protection to people living with HIV and that she would fight to keep AIDS funding at high levels. It is a “false economy” to cut AIDS funding, she said, because “it costs us more in the future.”
During the conference, advocates for high-risk groups — men who have sex with men, blacks, women, children, transgender persons, sex workers, drug users, prisoners and migrant workers — said they cannot continue to be overlooked, or blocked from attending these international AIDS conferences, as happened with this week’s conference due to U.S. laws against foreign prostitutes entering the country.
“We are the most critical part of the solution,” said Anna Zakowicz, leader of an organization for HIV-positive persons in Europe.
These groups will be welcomed at the next AIDS conference, though, said Sharon Lewin, a professor and infectious diseases physician who is local co-chairwoman of AIDS 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. “All affected communities,” including sex workers, will be invited to Australia, she said.