AIDS Advocates, Conference Officials React to HHS Decision To Send Only 50 Delegates to XV International AIDS Conference
Some AIDS advocates, government scientists and others have reacted with "chagrin, amazement and disgust" to an HHS decision to send fewer delegates to the XV International AIDS Conference next week in Bangkok, Thailand, than the agency sent to the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, the Washington Post reports (Brown, Washington Post, 7/9). 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 (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 4/27). Dozens of presentations had to be withdrawn because U.S. scientists could not attend, and many training sessions for researchers from developing countries had to be canceled, according to the, Post. However, other Cabinet-level departments that have AIDS programs, including the Department of State, Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, have not cut back participation in the conference, according to the Post. "We received no directions to do that. In fact, we received the opposite," Col. Deborah Birx, an Army AIDS researcher, said, adding, "Because our work is primarily international, our general encouraged us to extend the relationships." Joep Lange, president of the International AIDS Society and co-chair of the conference, said the decision is "unfair" and a "pity," according to the Post. UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said the reduced attendance is a "big deal for the quality of the conference," adding, "The largest group in the world in terms of AIDS expertise comes from the [United States]." A senior CDC official who asked not to be identified said that the cuts were sending the message that the United States "wants to be engaged" in the fight against AIDS but also "wants to call the shots," according to the Post. However, HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said the decision reflected a department directive to limit travel to all scientific meetings, adding, "A lot of it was simply looking at expenses" (Washington Post, 7/9). 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 [HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson] 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). "This is clearly the result of the booing of Secretary Thompson, which he took quite personally," an unnamed CDC official said (Washington Post, 7/9).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.