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Scientific community urged to become activists

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Scientists as activists?
The 5th International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention opened on Sunday in Cape Town, South Africa, amidst reports that funding gaps and poor management are threatening supplies of life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) drugs in at least six African countries.

Ahead of the conference, Dr Eric Goemaere, head of mission in South Africa for international medical NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), said clinics all over the country had stopped enrolling HIV patients because they had run out of medication. "The waiting lists are growing by the day, risking that patients die before they start ARVs," he said in a statement issued by MSF. "It's unbelievable that a relatively well-functioning ARV programme has been allowed to be crippled in the space of just a few weeks."

Citing similar problems in Guinea, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, MSF blamed national and donor governments for failing to meet their funding commitments, or to respond to the crisis with the appropriate urgency.

Several speakers at the IAS Conference warned governments and donors not to use the global economic crisis as an excuse to back away from previous commitments to achieve universal access to HIV prevention and treatment by 2010.

"Already, we are hearing warnings about the sustainability of the roll-out of ARV therapy," said Dr Julio Montaner, chair of IAS 2009 and director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, Canada. "A retrenchment now would be catastrophic for nearly four million people who are already on treatment in resource-limited countries, not to mention the six to seven million others who ... are still waiting for life-saving treatment."

Montaner chastised G8 leaders for leaving HIV/AIDS off their priority agenda at the recent G8 meeting in Italy, and not making good on 2005 commitments to fund the goal of universal access. "We must hold the G8 leaders accountable for their failure to deliver on their promises," he told the more than 5,000 members of the international AIDS community attending the conference.

Stephen Lewis, co-director of international advocacy organization AIDS Free World, and former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said the scientific community had a responsibility to fight the current "backlash against funding for AIDS" by telling "the power brokers of this world … of the risks and the benefits, and what will happen if they make the wrong choices."

Describing the conference as taking place at a "critical moment" in the fight against HIV/AIDS, just 17 months before the deadline for universal access, and when arguments that AIDS has received too much funding at the expense of other diseases were gaining ground, Lewis told delegates that "if ever the scientific community was to engage in public activism, that time is now."

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