On World AIDS Day, activists renew push for a cure

    Today marks World AIDS Day, a day when people across the globe take action to help stem the spread of the disease. An estimated 33 million people have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

    Drug treatments are helping those in Western countries survive, but that’s a small fraction of the number of those afflicted worldwide. In Philadelphia, a small group of activists has gained national recognition for its campaign to put finding a cure back on the agenda.

    When people began dying of AIDS in the 1980s, advocates pushed for treatment. Twenty years later, AIDS drugs are widely available to those in Western countries.

    Jay Kostman, an AIDS researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said that  in the search for life-saving treatments, looking for a cure became taboo.

    “And the reason for that is there’s so much focus over the years on making HIV a chronic manageable condition,” he said.

    But those drugs are beyond the reach of many in the developing world, said Kostman who added that more of an emphasis should be put on finding a cure.

    Last year, the AIDS Policy Project launched a campaign to get more money to fund research for a cure. Kate Krauss, executive director of the project, said she was surprised to learn that very little money was available — she estimates only 3 percent of the AIDS budget at the National Institutes of Health goes toward finding a cure. But, she said, the research that is happening is promising.

    “So, it’s actually a really exciting time, a pivotal time. And it’s a question of whether this epidemic … what we do now, is going to determine whether this epidemic lasts for five or 10 years, or whether it lasts 30 or 40 years,” she said. “Can we break down these research obstacles? Can we get researchers new money? “

    Krauss, who launched a letter-writing campaign out of her home in West Philadelphia, wants to quadruple the funding that the NIH directs toward finding a cure. Her work has garnered national attention from advocates and researchers.

    “This has not escalated into a demand for a cure, or research for a cure,” said Larry Kramer, the founder of ACT-UP, an activist group that has pushed for AIDS prevention and treatment since 1988. “And what this group from Philadelphia has done on their own is to reignite this issue and try and run with it.”

    The NIH has agreed to start tracking AIDS cure funding. An estimated 2 million people died of AIDS in 2008, while 2.7 million were newly infected.

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