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Losing common ground

A rift between science and activism is undermining progress in the fight against AIDS
By DAVID KISH  |  October 3, 2008

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MEXICO CITY — I cross the street where Cortez crushed the Aztecs, and things start to bubble. A crowd forms, banners appear, T-shirts are donned, chants overtake other chants. From pickup trucks, women distribute free strips of condoms to giddy men who hold them over their heads like trophies. Police are everywhere, some foppish in sombreros on horseback, most deadly with fingers on triggers of automatic weapons. Someone thrusts the string of a pink balloon into my hands and suddenly I’m in an AIDS protest. The mob moves and, surrounded, I move with it. Caught in the frivolity and righteousness of the moment, we inch toward the vast Zocalo plaza where Annie Lennox, in halting Spanish, will encourage us to keep doing what we’re doing. But what exactly are we doing? Among the chaos of fractious voices, it’s hard to discern a clear message, and even harder to know who might be receiving it.

Mexico’s capital, renowned for its street demonstrations, hosted the 17th International AIDS Conference a few weeks ago. It was the first time the International AIDS Society held its signature event in Latin America, where infection rates are on the rise. The classic AIDS red ribbon, deftly redesigned to resemble the local ancient god Quetzalcoatl (the plumed serpent), became the official logo and was plastered everywhere: lampposts, billboards, buses, buildings, tote bags, literature, and (in the form of temporary tattoos) even people. Under this unifying banner 30,000 scientists, activists, politicians, students, and journalists descended upon the largest city in the Western Hemisphere to take stock of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Far from a united front, however, the week-long conference highlighted a growing disconnect between the tactics and expectations of AIDS activists, and the scientific realities facing researchers.

The previous conference was held in the much less chaotic city of Toronto, where scientists were optimistic that a cure was in sight. But it has been a very bad year for HIV research; two human trials of Merck’s most promising vaccine were stopped when it was realized that the vaccine may have actually increased HIV susceptibility among some subjects. The problem may have been the adenovirus (common cold virus) used to deliver the candidate vaccine, since everyone’s immune system responds differently to the common cold. But no one’s really sure. Several trials of other potential vaccines have now been delayed. International AIDS Society executive director Craig McClure admitted, “In terms of scientific breakthroughs, this is not the year for breakthroughs.” One word notably scarce in this year’s multifaceted discourse was “cure.”

In light of these scientific setbacks, activists took center stage at this conference — increasing their numbers, their messages, their volume, and ultimately their cacophony. The worst demonstrations were vague, ill-informed, and self-contradicting, but even the best protests either preached to the choir or fell on deaf ears. As the scientists scrambled to find a common path, so too the activists, splintered into an endless barrage of organizations (all requiring money to stay afloat), presented no common path of their own. Considering the limited funding that any predominantly Third World disease is apt to garner, I had to wonder if AIDS activism includes too many disparate voices for its own good.

Not listening
AIDS activists and scientists used to play nicely in the same sandbox, both camps pressuring governments and big pharmaceutical companies to funnel more money into research. Now, activists march straight through convention centers and into lecture halls, interrupting speakers and shutting down panel discussions. This new tactic will not engage the scientific community; it will push them away. Scientists sat stone-faced beneath impotent pleas from PowerPoint screens: “Please respect the right of the speaker to be heard and of other participants to hear the speaker.” One frustrated scientist from Washington, DC, who has been attending these conferences since the 1980s but doubted his future participation, scoffed, “It’s hard to do science when people are yelling at you.”

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