Aids talks: a lot of hot air, little hope

2008-08-08 00:00

The battle against global warming received a setback this week when the 17th International Aids Conference released major amounts of hot air into the atmosphere above Mexico. Over 20 000 delegates ranging from country presidents to trans-gendered Nepalese sex workers took to the podium to enlighten us on the latest developments in the battle against Aids.

So, with all the billions of dollars going into HIV research and programmes, what is there new to report? Unfortunately, not a lot. On the prevention front, hopes of a vaccine in the near future are about as slim as the chance of President Thabo Mbeki admitting he has ever met anyone with Aids.

The only recent major new finding emerging from HIV prevention research is that circumcision reduces by about half the chances of men getting HIV.

On the treatment front, the pharmaceutical companies are thrilled by the lack of progress in the quest to find a cure for Aids. Our inability to eradicate the virus from the body means that HIV-infected people need to remain on treatment for life, thereby ensuring an ongoing and increasing demand for their drugs. Plus, the demand is going to increase exponentially, because for every two people who go on to treatment, five people are newly infected.

There is a debate around criminalising the transmission of HIV to a sexual partner by people who know they are HIV-positive. Apparently, sprinkling your partner’s porridge with anthrax or sinking a pick axe into her forehead is a no-no, but passing on HIV is different.

What was made clear is that southern Africa is unique because it is the only region experiencing what is called a “hyper-epidemic” scenario.

The implication is that there will be no technical fix and instead a major shift in social norms is needed before we have hope of slowing the epidemic. If we carry on having multiple partners and not using condoms, we have little hope of curbing the epidemic. Such changes will require a united front with consistent leadership from community level to the Presidency. Fat chance of that.

At least the South African government’s stand was mercifully free of the beetroot and garlic that made us the laughing stock of the Toronto conference. However, it was only slightly better because instead of vegetables, it was dominated by photos of well-known Aids activists Thabo Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang. Vegetables for fruitcake!

Dr Mark Colvin works with the Centre for Aids Development, Research and Evaluation.

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