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AIDS confab closes on a 'forward' look
by Erica Demarest

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After a week of packed panels, workshops and speeches, the U.S. Conference on AIDS ( USCA ) wrapped up its Chicago run Nov. 13 with a plenary luncheon titled "Looking Forward to 2012."

Dr. Julio Montenar, who heads the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, kicked off the final session with a presentation that highlighted ground-breaking medical research on treatment as prevention.

"There's compelling reason to believe that highly active antiretroviral therapy not only stops disease progression [ and ] death, but it also stops transmission," Montenar said. "HAART stops viral replication the same day you start taking the treatment."

With a bevvy of charts and graphs at his side, Montenar walked the captivated audience through recent studies that have proven early treatment can reduce transmission by as much as 96.3 percent.

"It doesn't get any better," he said. "This is better than condoms. This is better than anything you can imagine. Treatment is the best protection that we currently have."

Montenar shared recent Canadian HIV data that illustrated drastic HIV transmission drops in British Columbia, set against stagnant rates in other parts of the country. The difference: The British Columbia Center for Excellence in HIV/AIDS had launched a comprehensive testing program that identified new cases and rushed medication to patients, while other areas hadn't.

"Having treatment available is not enough," Montenar said. He advocated creating targeted testing and treatment plans, and urged those in the audience to make testing efforts a focal point in their organizations. "I hear about programs that want to save money by testing less. That is simply stupid," he said.

In the United States, it's estimated that 20 percent of people living with HIV don't know their status, and that those people are responsible for roughly half of all new HIV infections. By getting that 20 percent tested and on treatment, new infections would drop drastically.

Though optimistic about treatment as prevention, Montenar foresees many obstacles for the U.S. Chief among them is access to healthcare.

"Let me remind you: We have socialized medicine in Canada. You need a program of that nature if you're going to get this done," Montenar said to loud applause. "HIV treatment is not a luxury. You cannot choose between going poor or starving your family and taking medication. HIV treatment is a human right."

Before leaving the podium, Montenar urged President Obama to fight harder on behalf of HIV-positive Americans.

"We have the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief for Africa," Montenar said. "We need a Presidential Emergency Relief Program for the Americas. It is crazy that the U.S.A. can bring free drugs to the rest of the world, but not to its own people."

International AIDS Society Executive Director Bertrand Audoin followed Montenar with a presentation on the 2012 International AIDS Conference, slated for July 22-27 in Washington, D.C.

Expected to draw more than 20,000 delegates and 800 media representatives, the biennial conference is returning to the U.S. for the first time in 22 years. President Barack Obama signed a law lifting America's longtime HIV travel ban, making it possible for HIV-positive delegates to visit.

" [ The conference ] will come to the U.S. at a pivotal moment from many aspects," Audoin said, "not the least being that we'll be in the middle of an election year, and two or three weeks ahead of the Republican Convention."

The 2012 conference will bring together international policy makers, medical professionals, researchers, scientists and NGO staffers for more than 70 official sessions and an additional week of informal events. Notably absent, however, will be many HIV-positive sex workers and intravenous drug users, who are still banned from traveling to the U.S.

"The ones I know in France, who are my friends, are thinking at the moment of whether they will not to come to the conference," Paris-based Audoin said, "or [ whether they'll ] not tick the box when they want to come to the U.S., and just lie about who they are."

Dr. Mary Wakefield, an administrator at the Health Resources and Services Administration ( HRSA ) , closed the luncheon's official programming with an update on the government agency's recent efforts.

She said HRSA is committed to improving access to quality HIV healthcare, and noted that figuring out how Ryan White funding will mesh with full implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is a top priority.

Wakefield highlighted HIV-related HRSA projects, including: 11 university partnerships designed to improve medical teaching models; an expansion of HIV testing across 8,100 clinical sites; and capacity-building for AIDS service organizations and LGBT health clinics.

Wakefield closed with a call to collaborate.

"If we are to meet the challenge of achieving an HIV-free generation," she said, "it is critically important that all of us from local, community, state and federal levels work as effectively and efficiently as possible to deploy all available resources, seek new opportunities to leverage them, and deliver high quality HIV prevention, care and treatment."

The luncheon concluded with a thank you to the 2011 USCA Chicago Host Committee, which included Cynthia Tucker of AIDS Foundation of Chicago and Chris Brown, assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health for the STI/AIDS Division. The 2011 committee then passed on gifts, well wishes and words of wisdom to the 2012 committee, which will spearhead efforts in Las Vegas next fall.

Mois├ęs Agosto-Rosario emceed the luncheon, which was held at the Sheraton Hotel & Towers, 301 East N. Water St. Terrence Calhoun, director of conferences and regional training for the AIDS Institute, spoke briefly.

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.

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