Global Health Groups Protest HHS Decision To Send Only 50 Delegates to International AIDS Conference
Global health groups are protesting HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's decision to limit to 50 the number of U.S. researchers who can attend the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, in July, USA Today reports. A coalition of 25 U.S. groups on April 29 sent a letter to Thompson saying that the decision represents a "serious setback in the fight against AIDS," given the United States' leadership in HIV/AIDS research, according to USA Today (Sternberg, USA Today, 5/10). HHS in March announced it plans to spend $500,000 to send 50 people to the conference, down from the $3.6 million it spent to send 236 people to the 2002 conference in Barcelona, Spain. Half of the $500,000 will be spent to send about 80 African scientists to the conference, and the remaining money will be used to send 20 scientists each from NIH and CDC and 10 HHS staff members. According to a confidential e-mail sent in March by NIH Office of AIDS Research Director Jack Whitescarver, HHS official William Steiger said that the decision to limit the number of government attendees "was as a result of the treatment the secretary received in Barcelona and HHS opinion that this meeting is of questionable scientific value." About 40 protesters climbed onstage and drowned out Thompson during his speech at the Barcelona conference (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/27). By cutting the involvement of U.S. researchers, HHS is "depriv[ing] international participants [of] access to the latest research findings" and "send[ing] a chilling message to young scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere who are thinking of embarking on a career in government HIV/AIDS research," the letter said. In addition, because the "United States bars HIV-infected individuals from entering this country, no such meetings can be held here," therefore the country must "bear the cost of sending federal employees to AIDS scientific meetings outside the country," the letter said (Health groups letter, 4/29).
In a separate letter sent to the International AIDS Society -- a conference organizer -- on Tuesday, Republican Reps. Mark Souder (Ind.), Todd Akin (Mo.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), Joseph Pitts (Pa.) and Ernest Istook (Okla.) expressed concern about the agenda of the meeting (Souder letter, 5/4). The lawmakers expressed "shock" that no representatives from the Vatican were invited to speak at the conference, noting that Catholic charities provide 25% of HIV/AIDS patient care worldwide, according to USA Today. The letter also said that the conference sessions place too much emphasis on prevention programs that focus on condoms and not enough on faith-based AIDS prevention programs, USA Today reports. In addition, the lawmakers' letter referred to the "rude reception" Thompson received at the last AIDS conference (USA Today, 5/10). IAS President Joep Lange in a response dated May 6 said that planning the conference is "always a difficult balancing act to ensure that the widest range of science and experience are showcased effectively." He added that IAS has confidence in the independent panels that review research proposals and "believes this approach results in sound decisions based on the most recent scientific knowledge." In addition, Lange said IAS "very much regretted" Thompson's experience at the Barcelona conference and has "worked hard to ensure that this experience is not repeated for any speaker in Bangkok" (Lange letter, 5/6). A group of eight lawmakers -- including Reps. Pitts, Akin, Souder, Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), Steve King (R-Iowa), Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) and Virgil Goode (R-Va.) -- last week sent a separate letter to USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios seeking information on the agency's funding for the event and for other conferences, including the number of attendees financed through USAID funds, the percentage of attendees from faith-based groups, and the percentage of scientific abstracts focusing on abstinence, monogamy and partner reduction (Pitts letter, 5/5).
The Thai Ministry of Public Health and IAS in a May 3 letter to Thompson said they would try to provide financial resources to allow HHS to send more U.S. scientists, Science magazine reports. Because HHS prohibits scientists from presenting their work if their travel is not funded by the government, many scientists whose papers already have been accepted for presentation at the conference will not be able to attend and present their work (Science, 5/7). "Let us know if there is anything we can do to help finance these researchers coming to the conference," the letter said (USA Today, 5/10). Lange in his May 6 letter said that IAS is "saddened" that "the results of so much excellent HIV/AIDS research and programming will not be shared by U.S. scientists with their peers from around the globe" because a "significant number of abstract and non-abstract driven presentations by U.S. researchers, as well as three satellite sessions, will have to be cancelled" (Lange letter, 5/6). Judy Auerbach of the American Foundation for AIDS Research said that the financial offer from the conference's organizers to HHS -- which has a research budget of more than $32 billion -- is "a little embarrassing." Thompson has not yet replied to the letter, according to Science (Science, 5/7).
Webcasts and other coverage of the XV International AIDS Conference will be available online at kaisernetwork.org/aids2004. Kaisernetwork.org will serve as the conference's official webcaster.