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Flashback HIV, continued

November 30, 2008

“It's just a harmless retrovirus. There are hundreds of those around. Hundreds.”
Peter Duesberg, AIDS denialist and advisor to South African president, Thabo Mbeki (2000)

This week marks the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, a continuing global campaign to keep the battle against HIV in the public eye, and promote the cause of prevention and cure. While enormous progress has been made, an estimated 25 million people have died of AIDS since it was first identified in the early 80s, and another 33 million are infected with HIV today.

In 2006, FRONTLINE took on the whole global story, with an ambitious four-hour mini-series called The Age of AIDS. Wide-ranging and widely acclaimed, the series traveled the world to produce a definitive account of the worst pandemic of modern times.

Among the central themes of the series was the terrible cost of denial and inaction. Last week, Harvard researchers released a study that attached hard numbers to one instance of governmental failure to respond to the scourge of HIV. The country they looked at was South Africa -- hardly the only offender, but one of the most egregious. The researchers' conclusion: In turning a blind eye to the disease that by 1999 had infected one in five South Africans, the government caused the unnecessary deaths of over 300,000 of its citizens.

The FRONTLINE account of these events is among the most compelling and heartbreaking stories in the series. You can see the segment on this page, or dip into the full four hours by clicking here.

Finally, for a personal perspective on the issue, we checked in with Renata Simone, the Age of AIDS series producer. Since the series was broadcast in 2006, Simone has continued to report on AIDS and recently has been training other journalists, many of them African, to cover the story as well. Here's what she wrote us:

For much of this year, the news about HIV/AIDS was sadly familiar; a promising vaccine failed, a long-awaited trial ended badly, and new efforts at prevention met with old political resistance. But then came three surprises:

In August, at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) announced that they had underestimated the number of new infections in the United States each year by a staggering 40%. Instead of 40,000 people becoming newly infected annually, as previously estimated, the number is more than 56,000. The new numbers also confirmed the disproportionate impact of HIV on the black community, which comprises 12% of the overall population, but accounts for 40% of all newly infected Americans, 60% of newly infected women, and 70% of young people and children infected with HIV this year. Although the new statistics were disheartening, activists have suspected this truth all along and are hopeful that the higher official numbers will strengthen their case for increasing prevention and treatment efforts here in the US.

Then the White House announced its proposal for extending PEPFAR (the President's Plan for Emergency AIDS Relief), which is due to expire at the end of the year. In the light of the new CDC statistics, researchers and activists were stunned to hear the proposed funding is more than $44 billion, to be distributed overseas, mostly in Africa. Understandably, some activists in the US have called for equal treatment, demanding, "Where is OUR PEPFAR!"

Finally, in early fall the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine was announced. For decades, Nobel-watchers had assumed that if and when the Nobel committee awarded a prize for discovery of the HIV virus, the award would go jointly to Luc Montaigner and Robert Gallo, who had fought a long and acrimonious battle over which of them had been there first. In the end, to the surprise of the AIDS community, the prize went exclusively to Montaigner's French team, with Gallo conspicuously left out in the cold. Even more surprisingly, the first name listed on the citation was not Montaigner, but Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, then a junior researcher with the French team.

I was particularly thrilled at Dr. Sinoussi's inclusion, as we had interviewed her for The Age of AIDS, in a section of the film that carefully reconstructed how the virus was discovered, and acknowledged her central and then largely uncredited role. [Note: to see this section of the film, click here.]

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