The 16th International AIDS conference in Toronto, Canada has come to a close. The five day meeting drew attention to the plight and role of women in stemming the global HIV pandemic, and focused on proven prevention strategies. Organizers say the summit brought together the right mix of politics, social activism and scientific research.
Conference organizers say it succeeded in drawing the world's attention to the HIV pandemic.
"These conferences can only be successful if they are truly transforming in the context of bringing together the political dimension, indeed, the community dimension, indeed, but let us not forget the science. We welcome ... the announcements of new drugs and new drug classes at this meeting that truly have the potential to make a difference in peoples' lives. Surely yes, initially here in the rich country setting, but ultimately and without fail in developing countries. And all of us will agitate for that to happen, believe me," said Mark Wainberg, conference co-chair.
Wainberg, a professor of medicine and microbiology at the AIDS Centre at McGill University here in Toronto, is talking about some late breaking news on drug candidates that appear to dramatically reduce the amount virus in a person's system.
Wainberg is also encouraged by data presented at the conference showing the safety of pre-exposure prophylaxis therapy.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis therapy involves giving an anti-viral drug to an uninfected individual in a high risk situation to protect them from infection. Wainberg believes another breakthrough to come out of this conference is in area called harm reduction, which involves needle exchange and methadone programs for drug addicts.
Experts say injection drug use is increasing in South Asia and Central Europe. And Wainberg says studies show harm reduction is effective in reducing HIV transmission. "Harm reduction programs are working in every single setting in which they have been tested and I think this is key and I think government leaders have to understand that science-based medicine is what should drive our response to the HIV epidemic," he said.
Other conference highlights included some promising research on the role of male circumcision, which studies show may reduce HIV transmission by up to sixty percent.
Also, research is getting under way in the area of microbicides, topical creams or ointments women could apply just prior to sexual intercourse to protect themselves from infection with HIV.
Scientists say an effective microbicide is probably five to seven years away. But even a partially effective one could dramatically reduce the number of new infections.
Outgoing United Nations Special Envoy to Africa Stephen Lewis was upbeat about the prospect for some new scientific breakthroughs in the prevention arena. "It feels as though we may have articulated at this conference a potential turning point. We may look back on it as an important moment," he said.
The World Health Organization has set a goal of making sure everyone who needs antiviral drugs receives them by 2010.
The acting director-general of the World Health Organization, Anders Nordstrom, says so-called universal access to anti-AIDS drugs is threatened by a lack of health care workers to administer drug therapy. "Whether it's in the private sector or in the NGO's or in the public sector, people are not doing that (administering drug therapy), they are driving taxis instead or they are going into another country. And we will never be able to succeed on the universal access if we don't address this issue," he said.
Nordstrom says money has to be found to train and pay health workers to achieve universal access.
The call is likely to be issued loudly in Mexico City, the site of the next international AIDS conference in 2008.