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World AIDS Conference Returns To Durban, South Africa. How Has The Conversation Changed?


The International AIDS Conference opens tomorrow in South Africa. The conference, which takes place every two years, is the biggest global gathering of HIV/AIDS researchers. It's returning this year to the South African port city of Durban where it was hosted 16 years ago. A lot has changed around HIV and AIDS since then. NPR's Jason Beaubien spent the last two weeks in southern Africa looking at issues around HIV in the region, and he joins us now. Good morning, Jason.


NEARY: So this conference is back in Durban, first time since 2000. How have things changed since then?

BEAUBIEN: Things have changed dramatically around HIV over the last 16 years. I mean, if you think back to the year 2000, HIV and AIDS was viewed as a death sentence back then. And now this is a manageable health condition. And also back in 2000, during that conference, South Africa was gripped with a terrible HIV epidemic. And at the same time, the president, Thabo Mbeki, was questioning whether or not HIV actually causes AIDS.

His health minister was talking about these herbal cocktails that were supposedly going to cure people of AIDS. All of that has changed. And now South Africa's actually a leader in terms of getting people onto treatment, tackling this epidemic. Yeah, it's amazing the difference that 16 years has made.

NEARY: And people themselves are approaching it - thinking differently about HIV. Is that right?

BEAUBIEN: People are, and also they aren't. There is still a lot of stigma, a lot of denial around it. I was working on a story out of Mozambique about sex workers. And I was talking with these women who work in the sex trade in Mozambique. And they're saying that, still, most of their clients don't want to use condoms. They believe that they're never going to get this. They believe that herbal remedies or traditional medicine are going to be able to cure them.

There was this one woman that I was speaking to - she is HIV-positive, and she's gotten onto treatment. But I was asking her about, you know, her clients. And, you know, who are they? Are they mostly people from the region - from central Africa - where are they from? And she's like, no. Most of these people are from Great Britain and China and India and America. And she said - and even they don't necessarily want to use condoms. So there are still a lot of issues that are keeping this epidemic from completely getting under control.

NEARY: Jason, as you've already said, advances in treatment mean that AIDS and HIV - no longer necessarily a death sentence. How does that change the conversation at these international conferences?

BEAUBIEN: You know, in a way, it's been good. In a way, it's been bad. By having this no longer be a disease that is causing people to waste away and have these horrible deaths, it has taken some of the urgency out of this epidemic. And so researchers now are trying to compete with malaria and tuberculosis and these other diseases because AIDS is no longer as scary as it once was. So that is a bit of an issue.

But the same time, you know, there's still a lot of work that's going on around trying to come up with a vaccine against HIV. There's work to try to come up with a cure. Both of those, however, are still a really long way off. And at the same time, you've still got 35 million people around the globe, you know, infected with this virus.

NEARY: NPR's Jason Beaubien. Jason, thanks so much for joining us.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.