White House Announces Obama Will Skip International AIDS Conference Same Day FDA Approves Historic HIV Prevention Drug

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Steven Thrasher
Lots of big news from the White House yesterday about HIV/AIDS.

In the morning, the White House blasted out a press release with some historic news from the Food and Drug Administration: the FDA had approved Truvada, "the first drug -- to reduce the risk of HIV infection in uninfected individuals who are at high risk of HIV infection and who may engage in sexual activity with HIV-infected partners."

Having recently written about How To Survive a Plague, one of the documentaries about the heyday of ACT-UP, we find it pretty amazing to see how far HIV management medication has come since those days. But after great progress, the rate of new HIV infections in the United States has been stubbornly lodged around 50,000 for the past few years. A preventative drug for people to take before they become infected with HIV has been sought for a long time and could finally provide a measure of movement in reducing new infections.

GMHC, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, weighed in on how important HIV preventative medications are in a press release (emphasis added):"

GMHC applauds the FDA decision on Truvada which will clear the way in making this new prevention tool available for adults at high risk of contracting HIV," said Janet Weinberg, Chief Operating Officer of GMHC. "PrEP drug development will be added to the vast array of HIV prevention tools including condoms, HIV testing and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP). Truvada as PrEP will clearly be one of the first iterations for Treatment as Prevention (TasP). While we do not have all the necessary information about how the public will respond and potentially utilize this medication for prevention, our clients, family members and loved ones deserve complete support to advance HIV prevention."

PrEP is a big step forward in the development of a range of prevention healthcare that each person who perceives themselves at-risk for contracting HIV may utilize in their cadre to protect his or her health. HIV is a virus that when left untreated will ultimately kill each person it infects. GMHC adamantly supports the development of any tool that will treat the infected person or will hinder HIV-acquisition for an uninfected person. Each available tool helps stop HIV in its tracks. GMHC strongly agrees with President Obama and the National HIV/AIDS Strategy--working together, expanding testing and treatment, and building our prevention toolbox, we can achieve an AIDS-free generation.

However, there was some not so exciting HIV/AIDS news from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday afternoon. For all the kind words between Obama and GMHC -- Obama gave a personal shout out during last month's White House Pride Reception to GMHC Executive Director Dr. Marjorie Hill -- it must be kind a disappointment to HIV/AIDS activists that the president will not be attending the International AIDS Conference, taking place in Washington, D.C. next week.

It's not just because the AIDS conference is happening a stone's throw from the White House that organizers were hoping for his personal address. More importantly, it's the first time the conference has been in the United States for over 20 years. It was last held on U.S. soil in San Francisco in 1990 (there's a beautiful scene of this in How To Survive A Plague); but it hasn't been here since then because the United States barred entry visas to people with HIV/AIDS.

President George W. Bush began to end this ban, and President Obama's administration finished the job. Obama is pretty well regarded by HIV/AIDS groups, and Twitter is showing a fair amount of disappointment that he's addressing the conference via video and not in person.

The Obama administration is sending a number of high profile delegates, including Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Kathleen Sebelius. They will also be holding a reception at the White House for people living with the disease on July 26.

Between the FDA's exciting announcement, and the realization that President Obama will not address the AIDS conference, it was a mixed day of news about the disease which has infected more than one million Americans.

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You can follow staff writer Steven Thrasher on twitter (@steven_thrasher) or reach him by email (sthrasher@villagevoice.com).


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