Michel Sidebe of UNAIDS speaking at the Opening Session. Photo Credit: International AIDS Society/Steve Forrest.

[Ed. Note — Contributor Michael Harney is writing to us from the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. This is his second contribution from the conference this week. Follow other updates from Harney here.]

MELBOURNE, Australia — Though the opening ceremony of the XX International AIDS Conference on July 20 was more solemn than usual because of the news of Malaysian flight MH17, thousands of delegates from around the world who did arrive safely filled the main plenary hall.

Aunty Diane and Aunty Caroline (“Aunty” being a term of respect that Wurundjeri people bestow on their women elders) gave a warm welcome as traditional owners of the land in their ancient language, then translated it into English.

Their wisdom is timeless and universal: “If we can learn a little about one another, we can live in peace and harmony…and when [you] look after this country, it will look after you.”

Also among the speakers was Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS who, on behalf of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, expressed a vision for ending AIDS by 2030. This vision calls us to step up the pace on “voluntary testing and treatment reaching everyone, everywhere; each person living with HIV reaching viral suppression; no one die from an AIDS-related illness or is born with HIV; and people living with HIV live with dignity, protected by laws and free to move and live anywhere in the world.”

According to recently published statistics in The Gap Report by UNAIDS, 14 million people are now on life-sustaining anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) approaching the goal of providing ARVs to 15 million people worldwide by 2015 (15 by 15). The next step is a new goal of 20 million by 2020.

“Stepping up the pace” toward a vaccine and durable cure is highlighted in the most scientific sessions of this conference. The “Berlin patient” Tim Brown is still HIV negative six years after receiving two bone marrow transplants and stopping ARV treatment, and is considered the only person in the world to be fully cured of HIV infection.

The “Mississippi baby,” now four years old and born to an HIV-positive mother has experienced a viral rebound. Sad as this is, the child’s unique situation of undetectable HIV virus and antibodies for 27 months after a limited course of ARV treatment beginning 30 hours after birth gives scientists “proof of concept” that long-term viral suppression off of ARVs is an achievable goal.

The big challenge now is finding all the elusive viral reservoirs that lead to viral rebound that are distributed throughout the human body, its tissues, and cells.

Follow the conference at aids2014.org.

Michael Harney

Michael Harney is an educator with WNCAP (Western North Carolina AIDS Project), an HIV/AIDS advocate and supporter of Needle Exchange programs. He occasionally contributes his writings on various subjects...

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