Looking back on last week’s AIDS2012 Conference, it is easy to see the impact that Washington, DC, and the proximity to Congress had on the tone of the discussion. Throughout the week-long conference, many of the events, panels, workshops and sessions highlighted the role of federal funding for global health research and development, as well as the impact of actions by Congress on the future of HIV/AIDS research. At Wednesday’s session, “The U.S. Congress and the Global AIDS Epidemic,” former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist led a conversation with Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), showcasing the past and future role of Congress in the effort to end HIV/AIDS.
During his tenure in the Senate, Frist played an important role in securing increased funding for global health initiatives. Throughout the panel discussion, the importance of bipartisan support and the value of research and development were repeated as key themes. As Lee pointed out, having AIDS2012 in DC has “helped to shed a global spotlight on a domestic epidemic,” noting that areas of the U.S. have HIV rates comparable to areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Washington, DC, itself is one example. Lee went on to note that in order to find a cure, resources and support for PEPFAR, the Global Fund and U.S. global health programs are vital.
Rubio noted that he has been pleasantly surprised by the bipartisan support he has seen in Congress concerning global health issues and emphasized that funding for global health and international development is not the cause of the budget deficit. Despite the perception of the public that the number is much higher, foreign aid comprises less than 1% of the U.S. budget.
“If you zeroed out foreign aid,” Rubio said, “it would do nothing for the debt, but it would be devastating not just for the world, but for America’s role in it.”
Concluding that research and development is the way to maintain support and move the HIV/AIDS field forward, Rubio emphasized the importance of developing more affordable, more effective medications, treatments and potential cures.
Following up on this theme, Coons called for continued support and investment in order to “innovate and cure our way out of this,” specifically pointing to vaccines as the future in HIV/AIDS research.
Capping off the conversation with some success stories from the field, Frist and Enzi recalled one of their first trips to Africa and the value of seeing firsthand the impact that antiretrovirals were having on the ground. Pointing to meetings with researchers on this trip, both Enzi and Frist reiterated the importance of investment in research in order to truly make a difference.
The panel discussion was interrupted by individuals advocating for increased rights for sex workers and the repeal of PEPFAR’s anti-prostitution funding restrictions. Regardless of one’s perspective on the impact of this disruption, it reinforces the strength of our nation’s democratic system and in no way compromised the strength of the panelists’ positive message about the importance of the federal role in advancing global health.
Tell your Member of Congress that research to combat HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and other health threats here and abroad is an economic and humanitarian imperative by visiting our website.
When advocates speak with one voice, amazing things can happen. Here in the U.S., with help from high-visibility breast cancer advocates, the federal budget for breast cancer research has increased nearly eight-fold over a 20-year span. More recently, the National Alzheimer’s Project Act redoubles public efforts to find a cure for this devastating disease.
The fight against AIDS stands as perhaps the most telling example of the power of advocacy. The voices of so many, amplified by entertainment heavyweights, have helped shine a light onto efforts at combating the disease, from prevention to treatment.
Research, of course, plays no small part in either area, from the tantalizing goal of a vaccine to the antiretrovirals that have turned an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease. And one panelist at AIDS 2012 – going on this week in Washington, DC – sees research as an entryway into advocacy.
“Research is an opportunity to build sustainable advocates behind one voice for global health,” said Prince Bahati of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.
Research brings together diverse constituencies: It pushes the frontiers of scientific knowledge, it improves health around the globe and it positively affects local economies.
But one word in his statement is not to be minimized: “opportunity.” Research, and the people who perform research, cannot be the sole voice; instead, research becomes a gateway to help build out the advocacy community. A full – and full-throated – advocacy community has the chance to change the world.
Part of that diversity was on display all week at the conference: Veterans groups and faith-based organizations were among the constituencies represented.
Those many, diverse voices are needed now more than ever. The U.S. contribution to AIDS research is significant, but there are no priorities in the current political climate. Christine Lubinski of the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) encouraged the audience to do its homework before meeting with congressional offices. She cited Research!America’s economic impact work, saying that we must try to demonstrate a domestic constituency for these issues, with U.S.-based research being a clear entry point. She also gave some words of advice for those who face policy makers that say our AIDS situation is leading us into a “treatment mortgage” for 30 years: It is actually a temporary bridge until research yields a vaccine. Congress used to have similar debates regarding polio and the “iron lung,” debates that evaporated when science produced a polio vaccine.
We also know that sometimes research has unexpected and multiple benefits for worldwide health. For example, AZT was developed to treat cancer. It failed in that regard, but federally funded scientists discovered that it works for HIV/AIDS.
Research and its advocates, as part of the larger advocacy community, have a clear role to play. Each voice adds to the chorus – and we’ve seen what those voices can do.
The International AIDS Conference has been in town all week, stirring up community excitement, celebrity activism, political commitment and scientific progress for global health, specifically for HIV/AIDS. There is talk of achieving an AIDS-free generation.
“We can’t hope to eliminate AIDS in this country or around the world if we just tinker with one little problem or another timidly, at one time, if we let short-term thinking rule the day,” Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told a packed room Monday. “Some will claim … that in the midst of a global economic crisis we don’t have the luxury of leading on this issue, that we ought to scale back PEPFAR, reduce U.S. support for the Global Fund. But what they ignore is that this is precisely the moment when our investment is most needed so that past investments are not lost, and we don’t slide backwards.
“So everyone knows that ending AIDS; not going to be easy, not going to be quick, not going to be cheap but we know now that it may be a huge effort or investment, but just like the eradication of smallpox, it’s an investment that is absolutely guaranteed to show enormous returns. It is also my friends, an inescapable test of our values as a nation, as human beings.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, also spoke.
“Now is not the time to retreat, now is the time to pour it on; money does matter. You have seen the benefit of the money being appropriated at Congress throughout the international community beginning to pay dividends,” Graham said. “Now is the time to focus on finding a vaccine like the future of the world depended on it.
“Part of what I am trying to do is encourage the international community and my government to have a vision very much like the [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation: Turn this into a business problem and solve it. It is a humanitarian exercise for sure; we all benefit when we do good things for those who are in need, but the opportunity to solve this problem exists now greater than ever.
Bill Gates spoke compellingly about the need for new tools and ultimately for a vaccine in order to seriously talk about moving towards the end of AIDS. He said that while we do not have the tools yet, we will get them if we stay the course in terms of research investments.
“The ultimate tool will be a vaccine. Scientists are making great progress, they understand the shape of the virus, how to count the antibodies … It is very exciting, and the U.S. government is by far the biggest backer, not only of these treatment things we have been talking about, but also all of these research programs. So, it is phenomenal to see that in that ongoing commitment.
“Earlier this year [the Gates Foundation] made a $750 million grant to Global Fund, but equally we support these research activities, so no one should think that we have got the tools yet. We will get these tools but only if we stay the course in terms of the scientific investments.”
Follow Research!America’s presence at AIDS 2012 through our Twitter feed https://twitter.com/ResearchAmerica.
The AIDS 2012 Conference is being held here in Washington, DC, this week. Research!America has been in attendance as well, and we’ve gathered some images from the global village and in different sessions to share with you.
Check back later in the week for more images from the conference!
A display from the Red Umbrella Project invites attendees to listen to the stories of sex workers.
Another display from the global village, which hosts art, workshops and seminars, all free to the public.
This sign, from an unidentified group, echoes a point Research!America makes in its advocacy.
Artwork is displayed in the global village.
This display is part of The Condomize Campaign; according to its website, the campaign works to reduce the stigma surrounding condoms and ensure global access to quality condoms and education. The campaign is an initiative of the United Nations Population Fund.
This session at the conference, titled “The Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Turning the Tide on the HIV Pandemic,” included (from left) Phramaha Boonchuay Doojai, a Thai monk; Kay Warren, wife of well-known pastor Rick Warren and cofounder of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA; McDonald Sylves Sambereka, an Anglican priest from Malawi; and moderator John DeGioia, PhD, president of Georgetown University.