Conference Looks at Changing Face of AIDS

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AIDS activists say African Americans make up 50 percent of all new AIDS cases in this country. That issue and others are being addressed this week at the "16th Annual International AIDS Conference" in Toronto, Canada. Ed Gordon talks to Dr. Helene Gayle, co-chair of the event.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A quarter century ago, reports surfaced that a deadly virus was killing a handful of white gay men. Now AIDS has taken on a new face. African-American women make up 67 percent of the total number of AIDS cases among females in this country. And since the epidemic began, the virus has killed more than 200,000 African-Americans.

Advocates are discussing these issues and more at the 16th annual International AIDS Conference in Toronto Canada this week. Dr. Helene Gayle is Co-Chair of the event. Dr. Gayle is also president of the international aid agency CARE USA. She joins us now. And we thank you.

Dr. HELENE GAYLE (President, CARE USA): Hi, good morning. How are you?

GORDON: I'm good, thanks. Dr. Gayle, let me ask you. We heard and reported on this program yesterday Julian Bond suggesting that the new face of AIDS is black. Talk to me about what has been discussed at the conference in relation to blacks and AIDS.

Dr. GAYLE: Well, this conference has had a special focus on the situation in African-Americans and HIV, highlighting the fact that now African-Americans make up about 50 percent of new HIV infections in the United States and that this has been growing. African-Americans make up about 12 percent of the U.S. population, so definitely there is a disproportioned impact.

And we've known this for a while. For most of the epidemic, gradually, the percentage of African-Americans represented among AIDS cases and HIV infections has been steadily increasing. So this has been an opportunity to bring African-American leadership, people on the front lines working on HIV/AIDS and really talk about what needs to be done to have an impact in the African-American community.

GORDON: Dr. Gayle, why are we seeing this kind of growth over the last decade or so? We must confess that there have been a lot of warnings - a lot of warning shots given to the black community about this problem, a lot of PSA's, a lot of educational pamphlets, brochures, etc. passed out. Why are we seeing this growth?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, I think it just shows what we know about this epidemic in general, that the people who are most vulnerable to HIV infection around the world tend to be populations that are often times hit with many, many different issues that fuel the risk for HIV infection - but also make it harder to tackle the issues.

The African-American community is a community that is disproportionately impacted by many health issues and many other economic and social issues. All of those fuel the epidemic and make it much more difficult to tackle.

There's also been an incredible amount of denial and stigma about HIV and AIDS in the African-American community, and again we know globally if you don't attack stigma, denial, homophobia issues related to injection drug use and really handle these issues and talk about them openly and honestly, it's hard to have an impact.

GORDON: There's been a concern and question for years now about race and this epidemic by virtue of the world paying attention. We see a pandemic in Africa, we see a growing problem here in the United States. Are we now starting to see people across the board look at this as a huge issue - the huge issue that it is?

Dr. GAYLE: Well, one of the important aspects of these conferences is that it is the opportunity to shine the light on this epidemic and really focus on the issues in a concentrated manner and remind the world that this is still an incredible challenge to humanity around the globe, and also in the United States.

I think because so much of the attention has shifted - and rightfully so, because that's where the epidemic is having it's greatest impact - but we've shifted our attention to the global epidemic. We should - we need to do more in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

But we can't forget that there are 40,000 new infections occurring every year in the United States of America - the richest nation on the world - and we're not doing enough to stop those. And half of those are occurring in African-Americans.

GORDON: There's some positives coming out of a bleak situation, Bill and Melinda Gates pushing their monies toward this. They have a commitment from Warren Buffett of upwards to $30 billion, I understand - Bill Clinton remaining out there and pushing for this issue.

We're starting to see not only high profile push from the PR side - but from the dollar side.

Dr. GAYLE: Yes, it's an incredible display of commitment on the part of Bill and Melinda Gates and the Gates Foundation, the monies and the efforts that are going into particularly developing new tools for prevention - things that could expand our options and reduce the risk of transmission for people around the world, and particularly for women. So it will also have a huge impact for African-American women.

But also, leaders like Bill Clinton who said he is committed for the rest of his life to this effort.

So I think there is a lot of hope in terms of the kind of leadership that is now being shown, the kind of commitments that are being made. But we've got to make sure that those commitments get put to action - that we use the resources, the political will, all that we have within our disposal to make a difference in this epidemic now. Today. We know what we can do. We know there is a lot we can do to make a difference and have an impact. And we should vow that we come back two years from now together in Mexico City at this international conference, having shown tangible results of our efforts.

GORDON: Let me ask you the other positive coming out of this. On the eve of the summit, there were details that were announced about the testing of a daily pill that will help in the prevention of HIV infection. Can you give us some information on that?

Dr. GAYLE: Yes well, these are trials that were completed that showed that Tenofovir - once a day, anti-retroviral - taken in a preventive way was safe and also acceptable.

Now the rest of the studies need to be finished that will be finished over the next two to three years that will give us results about whether or not that regimen also shows effectiveness against reducing HIV infection.

We don't have data yet about effectiveness, but there's a lot of reason to believe that that regimen - taking a once a day pill - could very well reduce the rate of HIV infection. So we're really looking forward to those results over the next few years. It will be one of the things that would help expand prevention options.

But I think it's important when we talk about these new tools that we remember that none of them are going to be 100 percent effective. So that means we still have to continue to put a focus on people reducing their primary risk of HIV infection, coupled with these new prevention options that will hopefully soon be available.

GORDON: And finally doctor, we heard of this pledge coming from the delegation of African-American leaders who attended the conference. Talk to us about what was said and pledged there.

Dr. GAYLE: Well, I think this is the first time that that high-level political leadership has come together at a meeting like this and really made the commitment that their institutions - that they will take this back to the halls of Congress and wherever they are in there different organizations - they will put this on the map.

Media pledged to run stories about HIV. Everyone pledged to do what they could given their organization, their responsibility to put this on the highest level of the agenda wherever they are. So this is the first and remarkable breakthrough for the African-American community to have that kind of commitment, that kind of pledge.

GORDON: Dr. Helene Gayle is co-chair of the 16th annual International AIDS Conference going on this week in Toronto, Canada. Dr. Gayle also leads the international aid agency CARE USA.

Doctor, thank you for your time.

Dr. GAYLE: My pleasure. Thank you.

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