Elton John and “Cured” Patients at International Aids Conference

Elton John Aids Foundation

The International Aids Conference in Washington DC is drawing to a close, but the event has done much to bring attention to the progress, challenges, and politics of the global fight against HIV and AIDS.

The conference has shown a lot about the changing face of HIV and AIDS. No more than two decades ago, being diagnosed with HIV meant little hope of growing old. Now, within the next decade, more than half of HIV/AIDS patients in America will be over 50 years old. This is partly due to advances in treatment, but it also due to the fact that many people in the age group still engage in risky behaviors. Managing the care of older patients with HIV produces special challenges. Numerous studies have shown that medical issues involving heart disease and thinning bones affect HIV patients earlier than in the general population.

“It’s only fairly recently that we’ve come to appreciate that even in people with suppressed virus, there are continuing effects of being infected with HIV,” said Amy Justice, a professor at Yale University who also oversees an ongoing study on HIV and aging among veterans, in an interview with the Washington Post.

At the conference, a session titled “HIV and 50+” had to turn away people when the crowd exceeded the 1,000-person capacity of the room. A project in the Global Village called “The Graying of Age” is allowing those older than 50 who have the virus to be photographed and tell their story for the project.

One of the highlights of the conference was the recent findings that two more HIV patients who received bone marrow transplants are no longer showing any signs of the virus in their systems. The circumstances are similar to that of Timothy Brown, the so-called “Berlin patient”. Brown received a bone marrow transplant from a doctor who has a genetic mutation that makes immune cells resistant to HIV infection. Brown has been HIV-free for five years. These two new cases have not shown signs of HIV for two years.

“Everyone knows about this ‘Berlin patient’. We wanted to see if a simpler treatment would do the same thing”, said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who oversaw the study.

“We found that immediately before the transplant and after the transplant, HIV DNA was in the cells. As the patients’ cells were replaced by the donor cells, the HIV DNA disappeared,” Kuritzkes said. The research suggests that the donor cells killed off and replaced the infected cells while the HIV drugs protected the new cells from infection.

One of the celebrities at the event was Elton John, who gave the keynote address at the conference. The knighted musician was too lost in a drug-fueled haze to help HIV/AIDS patients earlier in his life despite watching many of his friends and loved ones suffer and die from the disease. Elton John became a vocal advocate for AIDS research after meeting Ryan White, the teenage hemophiliac who died from the disease.  The Grammy-winning artist began volunteering, started his own charity for AIDS research, and has now published a book. The book, “Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss, and the End of AIDS”, describes the AIDS epidemic from the personal effect it had on his life and on his efforts to break down the social stigma that still haunts AIDS patients.

“We’ve come so far with the advancement of medical treatment, but we haven’t really come much further than 31 years ago when AIDS first started with the stigma involved,” said John in an interview with NPR’s Neal Cohan.

“People still think of it as a shame-based disease. It’s a sexually transmitted disease, and you’re either gay or you’re a prostitute or an intravenous drug user. And so a lot of people are still very bigoted about this disease, and it’s our biggest opponent, trying to break these people down.”

The conference also showed some other political challenges associated with the disease. Some countries, like Brazil, were chided by experts for reducing their efforts to curb the spread of the disease. And though secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton were at the conference, some activists were angry that President Obama only made a cameo in the form of a video clip in the welcome video.

Activists also pointed out that the treatment of women with the disease was an area the world could improve upon.  Two-thirds of the 4.8 million 15 to 24 year old HIV patients are female.

“These adolescent girls and young women, our sisters and daughters, represent an unfinished agenda in the AIDS response,” Rao Gupta said in an interview with CBS News.

The 19th International AIDS Conference will end on Friday, with an address by Bill Clinton.

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