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Originally published Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 4:54 PM

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Hopeful AIDS fighters meet in nation's capital

Amid rising optimism that a vaccine for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is within reach, the International AIDS Conference is taking place in a city with a 3 percent HIV infection rate — equal to some of the world's worst-affected countries.

McClatchy Newspapers

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WASHINGTON — The world's largest gathering of AIDS researchers, activists and policymakers will convene in the nation's capital this weekend amid rising optimism that a vaccine for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is within reach, and as more of the world's population gains access to testing and treatment.

However, the International AIDS Conference is also taking place in a city with a 3 percent HIV infection rate — equal to some of the world's worst-affected countries — and in a nation where the disease has a disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities.

The conference, held every two years, will bring together science, medicine, public policy and advocacy in one place to brainstorm the response to a global pandemic that's killed 30 million worldwide over three decades, including 600,000 Americans.

New breakthroughs in research will be announced, as will new efforts by governments and organizations to reduce the spread of HIV, to treat those who have it, and to work, eventually, toward a vaccine and a cure.

"More than 5,000 people a day die of the disease. This is still an emergency," said Michael Weinstein, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a Los Angeles-based provider of HIV and AIDS treatment. "The war against AIDS has not been won."

More than a million Americans live with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Worldwide, 34 million people lived with HIV last year, according to the United Nations, and 2.5 million people became newly infected. Though the toll has declined since the peak in 2005, 1.7 million people died of the disease last year.

Perhaps nowhere in the U.S. are those challenges more apparent than in the nation's capital. The city's rate of infection is twice the World Health Organization's generalized definition of an epidemic.

Not far from the city's convention center, where this week's conference will take place, is Whitman-Walker Health, the nucleus of HIV prevention and treatment efforts in the District of Columbia for nearly three decades.

"D.C. still has hundreds of people die a year of AIDS complications. That's way too many," said Meghan Davies, the director of community health at Whitman-Walker, which provides HIV testing and treatment and education.

The District has a large concentration of groups most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS: young, gay, poor, black and uninsured. While infection rates have fallen in many categories in the past few years, according to a District Department of Health report last month, others have increased alarmingly. The infection rate among black women in the city's poorest neighborhoods doubled to 12 percent between 2008 and 2010.

"We're obviously doing something wrong," Davies said. "Women think they're not at risk for it."

The first barrier is resistance to using condoms, which Davies said are 95 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission. The second is getting tested. People who don't know they have HIV are more likely to pass it on to their sex partners. Davies said everyone should know their HIV status.

"People are petrified of knowing the answer," she said. "Once you know, you have to deal with it."

The third barrier is getting proper care to people with HIV. Antiretroviral treatments have proved 96 percent effective at making the virus undetectable in patients, and Davies said that helps reduce the transmission rate.

The global funding effort began under former President George W. Bush, whose President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or Pepfar, has extended lifesaving AIDS treatment to 4 million people worldwide, supported an additional 13 million with care and support, and supported counseling and testing for 40 million people in countries with the highest rates of HIV infections.

Though Obama's 2013 budget reduces funding for Pepfar by $214 million, the U.S. still would contribute more than $6 billion toward the global AIDS fight, more than any other country.

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