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Conference Stresses Testing, Role of Women in AIDS Prevention

August 15, 2006 at 6:40 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Participants in this week’s International AIDS Conference in Toronto have tackled the history of a disease which still records four million new infections every year. The race for a solution to stem the tide has returned again and again to a running theme: the increased risk to women in Africa, in the United States, and around the world.

Our friend, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, has been covering these and other issues on the continent of Africa for nearly 10 years. At the AIDS meeting yesterday, she talked about the past, present and future with two leading thinkers on the subject: former President Bill Clinton and Gates Foundation Chairman Bill Gates. She joins us now.

Charlayne, welcome back to the NewsHour.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, Former NewsHour Correspondent: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about that running theme. The face of AIDS increasingly seems to be the face of a woman.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Absolutely. I mean, the biggest problem on the African continent is poverty, and now AIDS, in the place of war, is actually its new grim companion. And the two things together are really decimating the continent.

And I think that there’s been so much attention to women now, it’s getting new play, especially at the AIDS conference, because people are beginning to realize that, if you’re going to save nations, you’ve got to save the women.

Eliminating the HIV stigma

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Former NewsHour correspondent
There are people in South Africa who sneak into hospitals late in the wee hours of the morning so nobody knows that they're going so that they can find out their status.

GWEN IFILL: We have heard so much about the stigma of AIDS, not only here in this country, but certainly abroad in places where people don't even want to talk about what's required to stem the course of the disease. What have you seen in your reporting over the years? And what have you been hearing at this conference on that subject?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I think that's one of the greatest obstacles now to getting a handle on this, because, as you know, there's no cure to AIDS, but there are certainly medicines available that prolong life if you could get people to know their status.

I was in Lesotho, where 300 of the two million people in that tiny mountain kingdom are HIV-infected, which really puts that country in jeopardy. There are people in South Africa who sneak into hospitals late in the wee hours of the morning so nobody knows that they're going so that they can find out their status.

And even mothers, pregnant women who are about to deliver, the stigma is so great that, when the nurses, who know they're HIV-positive, but they have to have their consent, they have to have them admitting to it say, "Are you HIV-positive?" If they said yes, they could give one dose of Nevirapine, a syrup to the baby to pour it down the infant's throat and a pill to the mother. And that would prevent the mother from passing on the HIV infection to the infant.

But the stigma is so great that the mothers, many of them, are refusing to acknowledge, even though they know that they're HIV-positive. And that is just a really sad state of affairs.

This is one -- even Nelson Mandela, the icon to almost everybody in the world, lost his son to HIV and AIDS. And in the news conference talking about it, revealing it, he talked about how important it was to make this a disease like any other, tuberculosis or cancer, et cetera, et cetera. And even the icon of the world hasn't been able to convince people to know their status. This is a serious challenge, perhaps the biggest out there.

Finding a common solution

GWEN IFILL: Has there been any agreement, any commonality of thought in Toronto about the right approach to beginning to stem this tide of new infections especially?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I think, you know, the title of the conference is "A Time to Deliver." And I think what they're trying -- the message that they're trying to get out is that you've got to link prevention with the treatment and care, because you can't -- it's not an all one thing or the other.

It's got to be a complex set of things, because while you emphasize prevention, using condoms or abstinence or whatever, you also have to not do that to the exclusion of the people who are already infected. We know and we've seen -- and I've seen -- specifics of how the anti-retrovirals, while they make some people sick, but they prolong the lives of many, many more people. I mean, workers are able to go back to work and be productive.

The doctor at Anglo American, the largest employer in South Africa, Dr. Brian Brink, who is at the conference, was telling me that their workforce, those that they've been able to get to come forward, have been given the anti-retrovirals, and they've returned to work, and they're as productive as ever.

And of course, this has great implications for the continent, because investors will not go to a place where they think the workforce is going to be sick and that they're going to have to take care of them. So this is an important thing that, in fact, there are ways of taking care of people who are already infected, as well as with an emphasis on prevention.

Stemming AIDS before a cure

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Former NewsHour correspondent
But if they had the means themselves to protect themselves, then, you know, this could also be the beginning of getting their arms around this pandemic, so that's what the conversation has turned to.

GWEN IFILL: You know, on this side of the Atlantic, we hear so much about the search for a vaccine, but it sounds to me at this conference like people are talking more about prevention. They're talking about things like these microbicides which would stop the infection basically before sex. Is that what the conversation has turned to, especially with Bill Gates, it seemed?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, Bill Gates has invested in the search for a vaccine to cure AIDS, because, as you know, there isn't a cure at this point. And he's also investing in microbicides.

The early tests for microbicides have been abysmal. They had 30 candidates, 85 trials, and the thing came a cropper. So they've had to go back to square one.

So they're looking at microbicides. They're looking at gels. They're looking at all kinds of cervical barriers to give women the power to control their lives, in effect, because what's happening now is that there is so much gender inequality that, you know, women can't resist.

Many of them are economical bound to men or emotionally or whatever. But if they had the means themselves to protect themselves, then, you know, this could also be the beginning of getting their arms around this pandemic, so that's what the conversation has turned to.

It's going to be years before there's a vaccine to cure AIDS. I think it's out there, but it's going to take a while, as well as a long time before there's a microbicide that women can use.

So in the meantime, Gates is investing in the research, but the emphasis on this conference has been very interesting, from Clinton and Gates to Stephen Lewis, who is the U.S. envoy to AIDS, to the women there. The emphasis has been on paying attention and doing all that's possible to stem the rate of infection among women and then to take care of those who are HIV-positive.

A theme of optimism

GWEN IFILL: And yet, during your conversation yesterday with Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, they talked about the possibility of a happy ending. They seemed to emphasize a little bit the upbeat nature of coming out on the other side of this crisis. How?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, you know, one of the things that Clinton cited, for example, was the experience of China, where initially the prime minister of China, the government just turned their backs, looked the other way, as some governments in Africa and elsewhere have done.

But at some point, they were convinced -- the government was convinced that this was the thing to do. And as Clinton, in his own words, he said the government of China turned around on a dime. The prime minister began showing up holding the hands of sick, HIV-infected people in hospitals. They began to have campaigns.

So the point is that, with the right leadership stressing the importance of all the things that we've been talking about, and with an active civil society, you can begin not, again, to cure AIDS, but at least to get your arms around it and stem the rate of new infections.

People know what the problem is; they even know what the solutions are. It's just that there has to be a greater consensus -- and Clinton talked about this, too -- a greater coordination of the AIDS groups, the governments, everybody who is invested in this, because, if you're not infected, you are affected. And increasingly everybody in the world is affected by HIV and AIDS.

GWEN IFILL: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, it's always a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Gwen, for having me.