’Dangerous complaceny’ feared as AIDS conference opens

In this file photo taken on July 15, 2004, a delegate looks at the "Antivir" anti-virus medicine products by Thai Phamarcy Authorithy on display during the 15th International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. (AFP)
Updated 23 July 2018

’Dangerous complaceny’ feared as AIDS conference opens

  • The immune system-attacking HIV virus has infected nearly 80 million people since the early 1980s. More than 35 million have died
  • Last year’s 1.8 million new infections showed that “unless we did something completely drastic

AMSTERDAM: A world AIDS assembly opens in Amsterdam on Monday hoping to harness the star power of activists Elton John and Prince Harry to bolster the battle against an epidemic experts warn may yet spiral out of control.
Thousands of delegates — researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with the killer virus — will attend the 22nd International AIDS Conference amid warnings that “dangerous complacency” may cause an unstoppable resurgence.
In recent days, experts have alerted that new HIV infections, while down overall, have surged in some parts of the world as global attention has waned and funding has levelled off.
And they lamented that too sharp a focus on virus-suppressing treatment may have diverted attention from basic prevention programs such as condom distribution, with the result that the AIDS-causing virus is still spreading easily among vulnerable groups.
“The encouraging reductions in new HIV infections that occurred for about a decade has emboldened some to declare that we are within reach of ending AIDS,” Peter Piot, virus researcher and founder of the UNAIDS agency, said last week.
However, “there is absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion,” he insisted, and warned: “The language on ending AIDS has bred a dangerous complacency.”
A UNAIDS report warned of a long and difficult road ahead even as it reported a drop in new infections and AIDS deaths, and a record number of people on life-saving antiretroviral therapy (ART).
These hard-fought gains could be reversed, experts said Sunday as the finishing touches were put on the venue that will host some 15,000 delegates — also including celebrities Charlize Theron and Conchita — for five days.
An alarming rate of new infections coupled with an exploding young population in hard-hit countries could spell “a crisis of epic proportions,” said Mark Dybul, a veteran American AIDS researcher and diplomat.
“Bad things will happen if we don’t have more money,” he told a pre-conference, saying the world was “probably at the highest risk ever of losing control of this epidemic.”

Dybul and colleagues said donor and domestic funding has dropped significantly and would likely continue to decline, from about 20.6 billion euros ($24.1 billion) last year — most of it financed from the domestic budgets of nations with the heaviest AIDS burden.
According to UNAIDS, the funding gap is almost $7 billion per year.
Under Donald Trump, the US administration has proposed massive spending cuts, though these have so far failed to pass through Congress.
The United States is by far the biggest funder of the global AIDS response.
The immune system-attacking HIV virus has infected nearly 80 million people since the early 1980s. More than 35 million have died.
Today, data show the infection rate is rising in about 50 countries, and has more than doubled in eastern Europe and central Asia.
Experts regret that the focus on prevention has faded.
Last year’s 1.8 million new infections showed that “unless we did something completely drastic, we will not get anywhere near” the target of no more than 500,000 in 2020, said Nduku Kilonzo of Kenya’s National AIDS Control Council.
“We have a crisis and it is a prevention crisis,” she said.
At high risk are sex workers, gay men and people who inject drugs — many of whom are forced onto society’s fringes by repressive laws in their countries.
At the conference, NGOs will launch a liberalization campaign titled: “Just say no to the war on drugs,” a direct challenge to the 1980s Reagan administration’s “Just say no” message at the height of America’s “war on drugs.”
The program’s criminalization of drug use has compounded the stigma and discrimination experienced by users.


Foreign students fret over being sent home after US visa rule

Updated 49 min 44 sec ago

Foreign students fret over being sent home after US visa rule

When the phone rang Tuesday morning, Raul Romero had barely slept.
The 21-year-old Venezuelan, on a scholarship at Ohio’s Kenyon College, had spent hours pondering his options after US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday that international students taking classes fully online for the fall semester would have to transfer to a school with in-person classes or leave the country.
A college employee called Romero to say he would not be immediately affected, but warned that a local outbreak of COVID-19 could force the school to suspend in-person classes during the year. If that happened, he may need to go home.
Romero is one of hundreds of thousands of international students in the United States on F-1 and M-1 visas faced with the prospect of having to leave the country mid-pandemic if their schools go fully online.
For some students, remote learning could mean attending classes in the middle of the night, dealing with spotty or no Internet access, losing funding contingent on teaching, or having to stop participating in research. Some are considering taking time off or leaving their programs entirely.
Reuters spoke with a dozen students who described feeling devastated and confused by the Trump administration’s announcement.
In a Venezuela beset by a deep economic crisis amid political strife, Romero said his mother and brother are living off their savings, sometimes struggle to find food and don’t have reliable Internet at home.
“To think about myself going back to that conflict, while continuing my classes in a completely unequal playing field with my classmates,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible.”
And that’s if he could even get there. There are currently no flights between the United States and Venezuela.

WORKING REMOTELY WON’T WORK
At schools that have already announced the decision to conduct classes fully online, students were grappling with the announcement’s implications for their personal and professional lives. Blindsided universities scrambled to help them navigate the upheaval.
Lewis Picard, 24, an Australian second-year doctoral student in experimental physics at Harvard University, has been talking nonstop with his partner about the decision. They are on F-1 visas at different schools.
Harvard said Monday it plans to conduct courses online next year. After the ICE announcement, the university’s president, Larry Bacow, said Harvard was “deeply concerned” that it left international students “few options.”
Having to leave “would completely put a roadblock in my research,” Picard said. “There’s essentially no way that the work I am doing can be done remotely. We’ve already had this big pause on it with the pandemic, and we’ve just been able to start going back to lab.”
It could also mean he and his partner would be separated. “The worst-case scenario plan is we’d both have to go to our home countries,” he said.

’CAN’T TRANSFER IN JULY’
Aparna Gopalan, 25, a fourth-year anthropology PhD student at Harvard originally from India, said ICE’s suggestion that students transfer to in-person universities is not realistic just weeks before classes begin.
“That betrays a complete lack of understanding of how academia works,” she said. “You can’t transfer in July. That’s not what happens.”
Others were considering leaving their programs entirely if they cannot study in the United States, and taking their tuition dollars with them. International students often pay full freight, helping universities to fund scholarships, and injected nearly $45 billion into the US economy in 2018.
“It doesn’t make much sense to me to pay for an American education, if you’re not really receiving an American education,” said Olufemi Olurin, 25, of the Bahamas, who is earning an MBA at Eastern Kentucky University and wants to pursue a career in health care management.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” she said. “I’ve been building my life here. As an immigrant, even if you are as law-abiding as it gets, you still are always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under you.”
Benjamin Bing, 22, from China, who was planning to study computer science at Carnegie Mellon in the fall, said he no longer feels welcome in the United States. He and his friends are exploring the possibility of finishing their studies in Europe.
“I feel like it’s kicking out everyone,” he said, of the United States. “We actually paid tuition to study here and we did not do anything wrong.”