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AIDS 2006 Begins Sunday in Toronto

The 16th International AIDS conference – the world’s largest gathering on the epidemic – gets underway Sunday (8/13) in Toronto, Canada. VOA’s Joe De Capua has a preview.

The conference, also known as AIDS 2006, marks two anniversaries. First, the epidemic is now 25 years old. And second, it was 10 years ago, at the AIDS conference in Vancouver, that word of the success of anti-retroviral drugs became widely known.

At the time, some thought the drugs might even be a cure. While that hasn’t happened, the number of available anti-retroviral drugs has increased from a handful to 24.

The main organizer of the International AIDS Conferences is the International AIDS Society, representing over 10,000 HIV/AIDS professionals. IAS Executive Director Doug McClure says the theme is “Time to Deliver.”

“It underscores the urgency in achieving the goal of universal access to HIV prevention and treatment. Universal access to HIV services, particularly in developing countries that bear the brunt of the epidemic, is both a moral and economic imperative,” he says.

McClure says it demands increased accountability among all those involved in the fight against the disease.

“’Time to Deliver’ also recognizes that although additional resources and continued scientific research are critical for the future, the knowledge and tools to prevent new infections and successfully treat those living with HIV already exist. Our challenge is to garner the resources and the collective will to translate that knowledge and experience into broadly available HIV treatment and prevention programs. ‘Time to Deliver’ is really about recognizing that it is the time to break the back of this epidemic,” he says.

International AIDS Society President, Dr. Helene Gayle, co-chair of the conference, says although anti-retroviral drugs came on the scene 10 years ago, HIV/AIDS has spread rapidly.

“Now, in the 10 years since Vancouver, the epidemic has continued to ravage the most vulnerable populations in society. As you know, it’s having its most devastating impact on the poorest of the poor. The most recent report on global AIDS marks another sobering milestone – the fact that the number of people infected with HIV worldwide has now topped just around 40 million,” she says.

Since the AIDS conference in Durban in 2000, the gathering has placed a strong emphasis on the social and community aspects of the epidemic. But Dr. Gayle says scientific presentations will be featured prominently in Toronto.

“We think that the science component of the AIDS 2006 program is particularly strong and reflects a record number of abstracts (scientific papers) submitted, almost 13,000, of which just over 4,500 will be presented orally or in poster form at the conference. And we really think this is important to note because there has been concern over time whether the quality of the science continues at this conference. We feel that it does,” she says.

About 24,000 people are expected at the 16th International AIDS conference. That’s about a 20 percent increase over the last conference in Bangkok two years ago. It runs from August 13th through the 18th. The featured speakers include former President Bill Clinton and Bill and Melinda Gates