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December 10, 2001

AIDS Day program highlights history

By Eric Rangus


To commemorate World AIDS Day, the Emory Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hosted “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Nov. 29 in the Emory Hospital Auditorium. Through panel discussion, film clips and formal presentations, it tracked the past, present and future of AIDS research.

“Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” featured doctors, researchers and public health specialists who were at the forefront of the discovery of the virus in the 1980s and who lead the fight today to eradicate the epidemic.

Dec. 1 was the 14th World AIDS Day, an annual occasion set aside to open lines of communication and deliver messages of hope, tolerance and compassion to those people either suffering from the disease or their loved ones.

Prominently featured along the auditorium walls were three sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which pays tribute to people who have died from AIDS.

Yesterday: James Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health; former CDC physician and scientist Mary Guinan; and Harold Jaffe, acting director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention engaged in a lively discussion that outlined the first years of AIDS research.

Curran, Guinan and Jaffe molded their comments around scenes from the cable movie And the Band Played On, which chronicled the first years of the AIDS epidemic and featured actors Saul Rubinek, Glenne Headly and Charles Martin Smith in the roles of Curran, Guinan and Jaffe, respectively. All three researchers were at the CDC when the first AIDS cases were identified two decades ago.

Following each scene, the panelists commented on its authenticity, one of the most fascinating aspects of the program, and each panelist brought an enlightening perspective to the discussion.

“People thought you were a weirdo,” Guinan said about the early-1980s perception of scientists who worked in sexually transmitted diseases. “We were the lowest of the low. People would walk away from [us] at parties.”

Janet Cleveland, chief of the capacity building branch
in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the CDC, discussed her work, which entails the creation of policies to develop and sustain community capacity for planning and implementing HIV prevention programs.

Cleveland said while gay men and women of color are at elevated risk for the disease, “recent milestones encourage me to believe we have the ability to move forward,” she added.

The initiatives she listed included a recent declaration by the Congressional Black Caucus to focus on the AIDS problem; the creation of the CDC’s National HIV Prevention Strategic Plan, the goal of which is to reduce by half the number of new HIV cases by 2005; and a 1998 meeting of 33 African American leaders in Atlanta addressing the problems of HIV in their communities.

Tomorrow: Tim Mastro, chief of the CDC’s HIV vaccine section, painted a guardedly optimistic picture of the possibility
of developing an AIDS vaccine. Foremost, he admitted it is still several years away, since very few advanced trials have been performed involving any possible vaccines.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is a difficult one to defeat, Mastro said, for many reasons. The fact that the virus continues to mutate, the difficulty of efficacy trials, and unfavorable market forces were just three factors he listed that impede the discovery of a vaccine.

Mastro’s sought to answer five questions: Why an HIV vaccine is needed; why we don’t have one; when it will come; what will a vaccine do; and how can it be used.

The answers, while sometimes disturbing (5 million people worldwide, 3.4 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone, were infected with HIV last year), were hardly without hope.

What will eventually be found, Mastro said, is a vaccine that may not necessarily help everyone but could be very effective for some.

Mastro said a vaccine may not render an HIV-positive person negative, but it could make HIV a “low-end infection” that would not necessarily cause death. It would reduce the chance of infection, slow progression and could be extremely effective against some strains of HIV.

A vaccine of this type, though, is many years away, he said.


Back to Emory Report December 10, 2001