Researchers and ambassadors convene for World AIDS Day symposium

Jane Kaczmarek at 2012 World AIDS Day Symposium

Since the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, 30 million people have died, according to researchers and ambassadors who convened on World AIDS Day, which is recognized on Dec. 1.

Held at Fuller Theological Seminary, the symposium titled, “Toward an AIDS-free generation: Where do we stand?” was sponsored by Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA). The organization works in Malawi in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is considered to be the the global center of the epidemic, as well as other affected African communities.

Actress Jane Kaczmarek, of the TV series “Malcolm in the Middle,” is GAIA’s Global Ambassador. She kicked off the event with an overview of the history, stigma, activists and progress of HIV/AIDS; including the infamous speech given by the United Kingdom’s Princess Anne, at the 1988 London World Summit of Ministers of Health, in which she suggested that there were two kinds of HIV/AIDS victims, innocent and guilty.

“How far we come,” Kaczmarek said. “While there remain pockets of the global population that continue to group AIDS victims into innocent and guilty subsets, the progress is remarkable.”

The speakers who followed were a collection of some of the most prominent researchers and ambassadors in the HIV/AIDS field. They addressed issues of healthcare, research, funding and the set-backs that are involved.

Dr. Michael S. Gottlieb, M.D. is Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He became a crucial figure in AIDS research and treatment in 1981. He identified the first cases on the west coast, of what would later be classified as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, and reported them to the CDC.

Young people don’t get the severity of HIV/AIDS because “they think they can simply take a pill a day and be fine,” Gottlieb said, expressing concern for the growing complacency. “They didn’t live through the devastation of the 80’s.”

Dr. Eric G. Walsh, M. D., M.P.H., is the Director and Health Officer for the City of Pasadena’s Health Department. He said that “[younger generations] have the advantage of better treatment and the disadvantage of less media coverage.”

“World AIDS Day is our big chance to get people’s attention to HIV/AIDS,” Gottlieb said.

Gottlieb praised Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton for her commitment, on behalf of the U. S., to supply global aide in response to the epidemic, but her term is coming to an end. Gottlieb said, “We can hope that the next Secretary of State can carry on her work.”

According to Walsh, there are some pockets in the U.S. that are suffering as much, if not more than Sub-Saharan Africa. Minorities are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS.

Walsh said, “Addiction thrives in secrecy and I would argue so does AIDS.” The stigma related to the disease prevents minorities, women and those living in poverty from having conversations about the use of condoms, getting tested and/or seeking treatment.

The keys to stopping the epidemic are “prevention work, education work and empowerment work,” Walsh said. “Treatment is prevention. If we can get everyone treated and get their vital load down, we can stop transmission.”

As far as finding a vaccine and/or a cure, there are two severe complications in performing the studies that could yield such results, according Dr. Thomas J. Coates, Ph.D. He is the Director of the Center for World Health at the David Geffen School of Medicine and a member of GAIA’s Medical Advisory Board, among other positions. “Not only are studies expensive,” he said, “but you watch people get HIV.”

The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS also affects the ability to get funding for research. Coates said, even his own father said to him once, “’Why should we fund research for this? These people brought it on themselves.’”

In response, Coates said, he reminded his father that his poor diet, lack of exercise and smoking were the self-inflicted causes of his heart disease. Realizing the parallels, “my father said, ‘Point taken,’” Coates said.

“There is reason for optimism this year,” said Dr. John A. Zaia, M.D. He is the Chairman of the Department of Virology at the Beckman Research Institute of City of Hope. His research is focused on finding a vaccine

“There are three vaccine trials going on in the world, right now,” Zaia said. “We will have a vaccine in a short time. What is that short time? Four to six years.”

While the scientific advancements are exciting, there is no guarantee that any one vaccine or cure will be effective for all the strains of HIV. Also, there is concern that a vaccine or cure will give license for people to engage in reckless behavior.

Walsh encouraged traditional HIV/AIDS prevention by adding that even with a cure or vaccine, there is no replacement for the condom, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) and unwanted pregnancy are still possible.

“The condom like the radio may be antiquated,” Walsh said, “but we all still have one in the car.”

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