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Political Activism Injects Human Element Into Scientific Debate With AM-AIDS-Conference, Bjt

July 22, 1992

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ At no other scientific meeting in the world do protesters routinely mob the halls, Hollywood celebrities champion the cause of research and reporters show up by the hundreds.

This week’s International Conference on AIDS is not just about a disease. It’s also about government red tape, the North-South divide and the social subjugation of women worldwide.

″The AIDS conference is very political compared to other conferences,″ said immunologist Candie Stoner, a delegate from Miami. ″But then, AIDS is a worldwide political problem. People are dying and there isn’t a cure in sight.″

″It’s a two-edged sword,″ said Robert Klein, a New York epidemiologist.

″If this were a meeting purely for the exchange of information, we’d be much more efficient,″ he said. ″On the other hand, you have to credit the activists for mobilizing world interest.″

This year’s conference is the eighth and largest, with more than 10,000 doctors, scientists, social workers and government health officials discussing the global epidemic.

The annual meeting’s character has changed markedly since it began in 1985 as a forum for doctors and researchers comparing notes on a mysterious new disease that was largely killing gay men in the United States and Western Europe.

Since then, the social and political aspects of the disease have become a dominant factor at the conference, for several reasons.

The disease is spreaded fastest in the Third World amd is increasingly attacking women, making it a feminist issue as well as one more element in the widening gap between developed and developing countries.

Third World researchers at the conference have repeatedly warned that even if vaccines to prevent or treat the disease become available, their nations may not be able to afford them.

Between 11 million and 13 million people around the world have contracted the AIDS virus, according to the World Health Organization.

Over the years, more and more AIDS sufferers and advocacy groups have been invited to the conferences, in recognition that fighting a disease ravaging marginalized social groups requires social as well as a scientific remedies.

Conference leaders’ messages have become as political as they are medical.

″The environmental movement has created political movements - green parties - to bring forward an environmental agenda. Why is it that there are not political movements in health to help health reach a higher level of social and political influence?″ said conference chairman Jonathan Mann of Harvard University.

He urged participants to abandon the concept of AIDS ″as a separate, unique and isolated health problem″ and to campaign for greater public awareness, more research funding and less discrimination.

The political emphasis has led to daily demonstrations inside the convention center, including the ransacking of an exhibit of a U.S. pharmaceutical firm accused of overpricing an AIDS drug.

The conference’s most political statement is its venue - Amsterdam, capital of a nation that boasts of frankness in dealing with AIDS and tolerance of homosexuality.

Harvard, this year’s primary sponsor, moved the meeting from its intended location, Boston, to protest U.S. visa restrictions on foreigners with the AIDS virus.

Although the United States is in the forefront of AIDS research, Washington has come under frequent attack at the conference because of those restrictions.

John McNeil, a preventive medicine specialist with the U.S. military’s Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington, has been to many of the eight annual conferences, including the first two.

He said the meeting has evolved ″to the point where the human face of AIDS is very present.

″I think many of the scientists don’t like that.″

Still, all of the doctors and scientists interviewed agreed that the political emphasis was needed, even though it occasionally interferes with the scientific business at hand.

Elizabeth Taylor drew thunderous applause when she took a slap at what she called President Bush’s inaction on AIDS. ″I’m not even sure he knows how to spell AIDS.″

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