New York Times Reporter Analyzes Focus of XVII International AIDS Conference
The New York Times' Larry Altman on Tuesday analyzed the focus of the XVII International AIDS Conference, which was held earlier this month in Mexico City. According to Altman, the conference focused on the "longer haul" in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the "mood" at the conference was "much more sober" compared with previous meetings. There were no "major breakthroughs" announced, and "cutting-edge research findings were rare," Altman writes. According to the analysis, the great strides in vaccines, microbicides and herpes-suppressive drugs that researchers thought they were on the verge of making at the 2006 XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto have not materialized. Consequently, delegates in Mexico City renewed calls for advocacy and financing to sustain gains already made -- such as promoting antiretroviral therapy in low-income countries, male circumcision and behavior modification.
Recent setbacks in HIV/AIDS research have led many scientists to "reflect on the frustrating, complicated courses of their endeavors," while others still expect trials to be successful, even though that success is "far from guaranteed," according to Altman. He also looks at how some scientists view failure as a momentary setback from which they can learn, while the public may consider failure as bad science.
Altman writes that the best weapon against HIV would be a vaccine but that none is likely to be discovered soon. Tadataka Yamada of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said, "Development of a vaccine is still more of an art than a science," adding, "No one country, any one scientist, any one team of scientists will develop the vaccine." However, delegates at the conference continued to urge further efforts to develop a cure and vaccine, arguing that unless researchers attempt to do so, they will never know if they can be achieved.
In addition, Altman writes that there were calls at the conference for "innovation and recruiting more young investigators to the AIDS field." Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, said that recruiting new researchers to the field should be less of an issue than in the past because of increased interest on university campuses about global health.
According to Altman, an "important handicap in tracking and controlling the epidemic has been an inability to get timely and accurate data about current transmission of the virus." A new test developed by CDC "promises a greater ability to pinpoint hot spots of new infections and to control them more quickly, at least in developed countries," Altman writes, adding that CDC has said the test needs to be refined for use in developing countries.
There also were concerns at the conference regarding access to antiretrovirals and resistance to existing therapies, according to Altman. Delegates also expressed concerns over statements by some critics that HIV/AIDS consumes too great a share of the resources available for fighting other diseases and that efforts focused only on one disease are damaging to primary health care systems in developing countries.
The "shift" seen at this year's AIDS conference was "unmistakable -- from a stronger emphasis on science to more of a convention atmosphere" -- Altman writes. The next conference will be held in Vienna in 2010, and "unexpected developments, good or bad, could well arise," he adds. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has "always come up with new surprises," UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said (Altman, New York Times, 8/19).
Kaisernetwork.org was the official webcaster of the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.