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Last Updated: Friday, 11 August 2006, 23:05 GMT 00:05 UK
'Hopes high' for HIV conference
By Genevieve Clark
Terrence Higgins Trust

This weekend, 24,000 people from around the world will converge on Toronto for the sixteenth International Aids Conference.

Aids pills
Improved medication has revolutionised HIV care

It's the not the first time that delegates have travelled to Canada for the annual meeting.

Ten years ago, they gathered in Vancouver to hear the news so many had been hoping for - effective drugs which could hold HIV at bay were soon to be a reality.

That breakthrough was the discovery of protease inhibitors.

When taken in combinations with other drugs, these drugs meant that the numbers of people who became ill from opportunistic infections, or died from Aids, dropped by about 70%

They are hoping for similar progress from this year's conference.

Crisis plans 'too little'

HIV has not gone away. There are now more than 40 million people living with HIV worldwide, and the epidemic shows little sign of slowing down.

We have a long way to go

While the six-day conference is taking place, more than three times the number attending - 81,000 - will be infected with HIV in the countries the delegates are coming from.

By the time they go home, the virus will have claimed the lives of a further 51,000 people.

It is unsurprising, then, that delegates are arriving with a very real sense of urgency, as well as expertise, experience and ideas.

So what can they hope to achieve?

High-profile delegates like Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Gere and President Bill Clinton want to keep Aids high on political agendas, to re-invigorate the international response to HIV and protect vital funding.

Delegates will also examine ways to address the factors which are driving the epidemic - stigma and discrimination, homophobia, poverty and gender inequality.

There is a growing campaign from community groups across the globe to stop the law being used to punish transmission of HIV.

Campaigners say prosecutions damage public health by driving unprotected sex underground, encouraging complacency and increasing stigma.

Peter Piot, executive director of UNAids, will tell the conference there must be a broader approach from crisis management to include long-term sustainable programmes.

While 8,000 people dying every day is a crisis, plans for the next 25 years must be in place now if they're to have a chance to work.

He says this will be crucial for supporting people living with HIV for the decades and generations to come.

'Cause for hope'

Getting drugs to people living in developing countries will be a central theme in the coming week.

More people than ever before have access to treatment, and those drugs are becoming better and easier to take

The World Health Organization's campaign to get three million people on treatment by 2005 - "3 by 5" fell short of the mark, but it provided the necessary jump-start to make universally available treatment a reality in the near future.

Experts will also argue that, with no cure or vaccine in sight, effective prevention programmes are vital.

A third of young people in the UK mistakenly believe there is a cure for HIV, and a quarter think it can be passed on through kissing. We have a long way to go.

Each country has its own story to tell, and brings its own successes, challenges and frustrations.

It's becoming clear that health services in some African countries are being seriously affected as their nurses and doctors fall ill with the virus.

It's a little-known fact that HIV is now the fastest growing serious health condition in the UK. Unicef has just warned of an Aids catastrophe in Asia.

There is good news, though, and cause for hope. Never has there been more money and commitment to fight Aids from governments around the world.

Thousands of local initiatives are staggering in their inventiveness and effectiveness.

More people than ever before have access to treatment, and those drugs are becoming better and easier to take. The rate of new infections is starting to slow in one or two countries as national and local efforts begin to pay off.

It will be the hope of all here that, as Vancouver heralded the arrival of life-saving drugs, Toronto will be the tipping point in the epidemic.

If the 24,000 delegates could have their way, they would not need to come back to Canada again.


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