Simple, direct, and powerful. These words, while attached to the promotional materials of a corporate conference sponsor, nonetheless caught my eye during a brief stint staffing JSI’s booth (#1281) on the first full day of AIDS 2014 (the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia). I honestly believe that we will eventually win this battle, and based on conference sessions I attended today, there is reason for optimism.
Both the morning plenary and an afternoon symposia focused on recent research on the potential for an HIV cure. While we’ve come far in treating HIV with medications, and can now use those same medications to help prevent new infections, HIV eradication has remained elusive. We’ve got the virus on the run, and scientists are not slowing down in trying to figure out how to eradicate it from people who are infected. An afternoon scientific session I attended, which was virtually incomprehensible to this non-clinician, focused on the latest research on how HIV “hides” in the blood cells and tissues of the human body and the prospects for luring it out of latency and eliminating it. I left there confident that we’ve got HIV cornered, and the best scientific minds in the world are baring their teeth and moving in for the kill.
But in spite of the enormous steps we’ve made in the science of HIV, significant structural barriers remain to effective HIV prevention and treatment. And it’s here that the speed of our progress hasn’t kept up. During an afternoon special session, presenters from the United Nations Development Program, as well as from Nigeria, India, and South Africa discussed punitive laws, human rights, and the intersection with HIV. A young, gay, HIV-positive Nigerian (who has received asylum in the US) discussed the laws in many African countries that criminalize homosexual relationships and restrict advocating for LGBT rights. In some cases, these laws are so broad they ensnare not only LGBT people but also those who love or care for them. An Indian transgender activist highlighted the archaic, colonial “377 sodomy laws” and the recent Indian Supreme Court ruling that left these laws in effect.
The impact on HIV prevention and treatment in these countries and many others is immeasurable. Today, after attending these sessions and hearing from these presenters, the urgency of of addressing these structural barriers to the end of AIDS everywhere was renewed for me.