The participants included university medical researchers and Third World heads of state, as well as a San Francisco prostitute known as the Scarlet Harlot. For some delegates at the Fifth International Conference on AIDS in Montreal last week, the huge meeting proved to be an exhausting encounter with diversity and dis-
sent. Indeed, with more than 11,000 people in attendance—including 1,000 reporters and radio and television technicians—the world’s largest forum on the disease called acquired immune deficiency syndrome clearly reflected the growing universal embrace of the AIDS cause itself. No longer a disease confined to such high-risk groups as homosexuals, hemophiliacs and intravenous drug-users, AIDS has become a threat to the world at large. Still, while experts predicted that the disease would continue to spread rapidly, one prominent medical researcher held out hope that a vaccine to treat AIDS might eventually be developed.
Officials with the World Health Organization predicted that the number of AIDS cases reported internationally will increase ninefold during the next decade, from the current total of more than 150,000 reported cases to almost 1.5 million. Currently, the United States—with nearly 100,000 AIDS cases—continues to be
the nation with the largest number of cases. According to the Federal Centre for AIDS in Ottawa, more than 2,500 cases of AIDS have been reported in Canada so far, with nearly 1,500 deaths.
The disease may pose an even more serious threat to public health in central African nations, including Uganda and Zambia, where an
estimated five per cent of urban adults are now infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is believed to cause AIDS. A keynote speaker at the conference’s opening ceremony, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda—whose son Masuzgo Gwebe died of AIDS in 1986—appealed for an all-out global effort to stem the spread of AIDS and to develop a cure for the disease. Declared Kaunda: “AIDS is here. It is killing us. A cure must be found at any price.”
Clearly, that message has gained a growing number of vocal proponents, many of whom share little apart from an urgent desire to combat the debilitating disease. For her part, 31-year-old Amanda Heggs, a Dane who tested positive for HIV in 1986 after being infected by a blood transfusion, told the conference that she identified herself as an HIV carrier to raise awareness about the disease. Said Heggs: “The message that women are at risk is just
not getting through. Heterosexuals continue to persuade themselves that they are immune to HIV.”
The note of optimism came from Dr. Jonas Salk, the University of Michigan researcher who developed an effective antipolio vaccine in 1955. He told the conference that he and his assistants administered an experimental vaccine to three chimpanzees and just over a year later infected the animals with the AIDS virus. Salk said that the vaccine appeared to wipe out the AIDS virus. He added that the vaccine is now being tested on 19 people who are infected by the AIDS virus. Salk, 75, who now lives in La Jolla, Calif., cautioned that it is too soon to tell whether the vaccine will provide immunity against the virus in human beings. Still, Dani Bolognesi, a researcher from Duke University in Durham, N.C., told the conference that the work of Salk and other scientists was beginning to provide hope that it would be possible to “protect against this class of virus.”
Indeed, some scientists at the conference said that, despite years of intensive research, the exact nature of the virus—transmitted through such activities as blood transfusions and sexual intercourse, which involve a direct exchange of semen, blood or vaginal fluids— and how it breaks down the human immune system remain a mystery. Said Dr. Luc Montagnier of France’s Pasteur Institute, who along with U.S. researcher Robert Gallo first identified HIV in 1984: “As long as we do not have a coherent understanding of AIDS, we will not have effective therapies. It is important to avoid making people believe a miracle will occur.”
Speakers at the conference discussed the possibility that HIV may not be the only cause of AIDS. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, a New York City physician who is founder of the AIDS Medical Foundation, told a news conference that the disease may be caused by other viruses, either alone or in conjunction with HIV. Sonnabend challenged the belief that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Said Sonnabend: “I personally believe it is not a very good hypothesis.” Sonnabend’s theory was supported by Michael Callen, one of Sonnabend’s patients and the head of People With AIDS Network. Said Callen, who has had AIDS since 1982: “I feel like I am at a Baptist convention asking people to consider the possibility that God does not exist.”
Other scientists told the conference that, despite the absence of a vaccine or cure for the disease, AIDS victims in some countries are surviving longer than in previous years as doctors learn to combat the disease with drugs. So far, azidothymidine (AZT) is the only drug approved in the United States and Canada that is known to slow the development of AIDS in human beings. Still, many doctors are expressing concern about studies suggesting that exposure to AZT may result in the development of strains of HIV resistant to the drug. Said Toronto physician Alex Klein: “The implication is that anyone newly infected by someone who has been on AZT may not benefit from AZT.”
Earlier, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told the conference that “everyone has an interest
in confronting AIDS, everyone has an interest in beating AIDS.” Mulroney, whose speech was interrupted by demonstrators who chanted “Too little, too late,” outlined Canadian government AIDS policies. He also announced a $ 10-million educational and training program in southern Africa and a Canadian-sponsored study of attitudes toward AIDS in Haiti.
The elusive nature of the disease has prompted both researchers and public health officials to promote education and prevention as the most effective means of fighting AIDS. Said A. D. Vester, the Dutch official who is coordinator of the city of Amsterdam’s AIDS program: “The only way to stop the epidemic is by preventing it from spreading. If there are free needles for drug-users and free condoms, people will take advantage of them.” Indeed, pharmaceutical firms at the conference distributed thousands of condoms to delegates, including scented and flavored ones. For her part, Carol Leigh, the San Francisco prostitute known as the Scarlet Harlot, attended the conference to present her music video entitled Safe Sex Slut, in which she promotes condom use.
Although safe sex practices may slow the spread of the virus, they are no comfort to those who have already contracted AIDS. A group of U.S. activists called the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which disrupted the conference’s opening, mounted a weeklong campaign to promote the rights of AIDS victims and HIV carriers. At a news conference, a group of she openly homosexual delegates criticized countries including Canada and the United States for barring entry to foreigners who are known to be carrying HIV or who are afflicted with AIDS. Said David Bechstein, who works with AIDS sufferers in Santa Cruz, Calif.: “The virus is alive and well in many countries. Closing borders to people will not stop it.” At the same time, other delegates argued that there should be more rigid monitoring of HIV carriers. New York City’s commissioner of health, Dr. Stephen Joseph, told the conference that HIV carriers should be listed on a confidential government register that would help public officials to control the spread of the disease.
Despite the conference’s many conflicting interests, the gathering produced encouraging examples of tolerance and courage toward a disease that has fractured families and driven hundreds to suicide. Barbara Chamness of Atlanta is the founder of an organization called Childkind and has adopted three babies stricken with AIDS. She arrived in Montreal with a 14-month-old baby named John, whose drugaddicted mother abandoned him several days after his birth. Although the child was born with AIDS, he appears healthy. Said Chamness: “When I first got him, he could not sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time. Now look at him. He is a beautiful example of what love and care can do.” Clearly, as AIDS continues to confound researchers, love, care and education are among the most important ways of coping with the dreaded disease.
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