International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference – Day 1

The 6th International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention officially began in Rome at 7:30 PM on Sunday July 17th, 2011 although there were a number of satellite meetings starting around noon.  I spent the afternoon in a special session organized by the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The Session was entitled Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV: Measuring the Effectiveness of National PMTCT Programs.  There is a great deal of emphasis in the HIV research and clinical community on women and children.  Two years ago at the IAS conference in Cape Town there was an emphasis on scaling up prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT) programs and antenatal care facilities; two years later we want to evaluate their effectiveness.  The session started with presentations from both the WHO and the CDC with draft protocols outlining how to conduct an effective evaluation.  In addition to providing guidelines on how to determine infant exposure and/or infection, the discussions included the ethical challenges of testing orphans and infants brought to a clinic by a sibling or community member.  Who provides consent? And, to whom is the result reported.

National PMTCT program evaluations were presented by representatives from Mozambique, Swaziland, Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa.  Up to this point, the PMTC program evaluation never went further than looking at program coverage/implementation and in how many facilities did implementation occur. Consequently, most of the presented evaluations fell short in evaluating effectiveness.  Another requirement necessary to provide an effectiveness-evaluation is a baseline that can be used for comparison; data that is not available in many of the resource limited countries implementing PMTCT programs. Hopefully in the future, with standardized evaluation guidelines, reduction in transmission rates due to PMTCT programs can be determined more confidently.

The official opening ceremony began with an incredible musical performance from the Santa Cecillia Junior Orchestra.  The performance was followed by speeches from the Co-presidents of the IAS, the president of the Italian National Health System, the mayor of Rome, an Italian HIV activist on behalf of the community, and the president of UNAIDS.  As the IAS supports freedom of speech, the opening ceremony also included a group of protestors calling on the Italian Prime Minister to make good on his promise to contribute to The Global Fund; something the mayor of Rome was unhappy about and promised to send the PM a letter encouraging him to keep his promise.  Everyone was quite excited about the scientific content of this year’s conference believing it to potentially be a watershed event because for the first time HIV prevention is a real topic on the agenda.

Stay tuned to our blog, I will let you know more specifics as they are presented!

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