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Toronto AIDS conference to address key issues

August 05, 2006 22:21 IST

The XVI International AIDS Conference, beginning in Toronto on August 13, is being billed as by far the largest biannual AIDS conference with participation of over 20,000 delegates and 3,000 journalists. Due to the size of the attendance, its opening ceremonies will be held at the Sky Dome, now renamed Rogers Center, that can accommodate 50,000 people

The meet will feature keynote speakers like former US president Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway and Hollywood film star Richard Gere, close adviser to the Dalai Lama. Other major speakers include NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot and UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis.

The conference is being sponsored by the Canadian government, City of Toronto, International AIDS Society, Global Fight for AIDS and others.

"We are extremely pleased to have such esteemed partners as we gather in Toronto to discuss the latest research findings and chart a path towards ending the AIDS pandemic," said conference co-chair Dr Helene Gayle, president of the International AIDS Society and president and CEO of CARE USA. "The recent UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS underscored just how much work we have ahead," Gayle said.

"The AIDS 2006 programme is designed to harness the knowledge, skills and commitment of thousands of dedicated stakeholders from across the world," said conference co-chair Dr Mark Wainberg, director of McGill University AIDS Center. "Canada is eager to welcome delegates to Toronto to build support for eliminating disparities in access to HIV prevention, treatment and care throughout the world," Wainberg said.

Even though so far there is no official confirmation, sources say in all likelihood the Indian delegation will be headed by Health and Family Planning Minister Dr Ambumani Ramadoss and will include Dr S K Srivastava, director-general of Health Services.

Sadly for the organisers, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not attending the conference as his spokesperson says he, "gets thousands of invitations and he can't attend all the events he's invited to".

HIV infection, that causes AIDS, is rapidly spreading in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and other areas in Canada creating concern amongst physicians and health workers.

According to official sources, there are 12 Canadians that are daily infected by HIV/AIDS virus and almost 5,000 annually.

Dr Paul Sachdev, professor of Social Work at Memorial University (St John's, Newfoundland) wrote a 19-page paper in 2005 based on surveys of 1,272 students in 11 Indian colleges, two of those being in Maharashtra and Karnataka, which he terms as high HIV/AIDS prevalent states. Two other places he included in his surveys were Delhi and Kurukshetra. 

"There were an estimated 5.1 million HIV-infected individuals at the end of 2003 in India, a significant leap from 2001 figure of 3.97 million," Sachdev says. However, as per the United Nations, the number of HIV-infected cases now stand at 5.7-million. The Indian government says their number is 5.2 million.

In a recent telephone interview, Sachdev said India has, "the second highest number of infections in the world after South Africa." 

Six Indian states --  Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Manipur, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu -- are particularly worst hit, said Sachdev. Women being infected by the HIV virus from men is 10 to 18 times greater than the risk of men getting the virus from women, which suggests that women are often the victims and the cause as is generally believed.

A front-page story in the National Post paints a very grim picture of India. Their International Affairs reporter Peter Goodspeed, who is in Mumbai, reveals that "one in every eight people in the world infected with HIV lives in India." Their number is reportedly growing by as much as 500,000 a year, making India, after Africa, the second epicentre for AIDS.

The writer quotes from a recent report by India's National Council of Applied Economic Research that predicts that "more than 16 million people in India could become infected with HIV/AIDS by 2016."

The World Bank has predicted HIV/AIDS could soon become single largest cause of death in India.

The article in the Canadian daily discusses lives of sex workers in Falkland Road, Mumbai, claiming that in India "about 80 percent of HIV infections spread through heterosexual sex and an estimated 89 percent of those infected are aged 18 to 49 years."

Dr Ishwar Gilada, a Mumbai physician,  was the first activist who 22 years ago raised the alarm about HIV/AIDS in India. He  reportedly claims that "nearly 90 percent of India's HIV-infected people are totally unaware of their HIV status. This is the epidemic which is spread by sex, blood and ignorance."

The AIDS 2006 conference in Toronto will have over 400 sessions, meetings and workshops featuring important scientific advances and discussions on current policy issues with political, scientific and community leaders and others on the AIDS epidemic.

This year's conference theme is 'Time to Deliver' as it "underscores the continued urgency in bringing effective HIV prevention and treatment strategies to communities the world over." It also "recognises that the scientific knowledge and tools to prevent new infections and prolong life among those living with HIV/AIDS already exist, even in the poorest settings. The challenge at hand is to garner the resources and the collective will to translate that knowledge and experience into broadly available HIV treatment and prevention programmes."

AIDS 2006's vision is to "foster an environment of scientific inquiry, forthright dialogue, collective action, and greater accountability among all parties." 

The conference seeks to "expand public awareness of the continued impact of and global response to HIV/AIDS; underscore the central role of basic, clinical and prevention science in the global response to HIV/AIDS and the need for evidence-based programming that is based on sound research; enable those working in the field of HIV/AIDS to be better prepared to meet the needs of those affected by and living with HIV/AIDS."

Conference symposium themes would include, "Operational research to improve HIV treatment, care and prevention programmes; prequalification of HIV/AIDS diagnostics and its impact on prevention; promoting women's treatment, literacy as a scale up strategy for universal access; long-term survivor skills; the developing world epidemic in the developed world; sexual and reproductive health rights and HIV/AIDS; Law: helping or hindering the response to AIDS; models of protective immunity to HIV; economic exclusion, racism and vulnerability."

The conference in 2004 was held in Bangkok. This year's conference in Toronto "will present an invaluable opportunity to discuss" results of the research work that the scientific community has done globally. 

"We have embarked on this endeavor with the steadfast belief that the work we do together in Toronto will have a positive impact on the world's response to HIV/AIDS," conference organisers say about the scientific vision of this year's conference  

"We believe that if we present strong and compelling voices from the frontlines we can motivate nations, corporations, and international agencies to do more and do it better and with greater urgency. Turning that belief into reality requires not just hard work, but also a collective desire to come together with an agenda for progress," the organisers say.

Ajit Jain in Toronto