AIDS forum calls for U.S. leadership

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

Students, administrators and experts gathered Friday at the McNamara alumni center to discuss the AIDS epidemic and the future of battling the disease.

“The next generation of physicians will have lived through AIDS their whole lives,” said Josh Rhein, one of the medical students involved in organizing the event.

The town-hall style meeting and discussion, which filled the alumni center’s lobby, was brought together by various University medical student groups, including Physicians for Human Rights.

It featured Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who lost a sister to AIDS, as well as experts on the biological and social outreach fronts of the disease.

Medical School Dean Deborah Powell thanked the students’ “zest to organize” in putting together such an event.

Battling AIDS in 2004 requires a mixture of expertise to address the social, scientific and economic factors behind AIDS, Powell said.

“Nobody can solve AIDS alone,” she said. “Success requires inclusiveness.”

University professor Ashley Haase discussed the biological side of the virus. Haase, who is also head of the microbiology department, was one of the first people to study the virus before the disease was a household name.

“We’ve been at this game a long time,” Haase said of the effort to find a cure.

Haase said battling AIDS in the laboratory has had a varied success rate.

While identification of the HIV virus and the ability to quickly secure blood lines against infection happened a few years after clinical discovery, a cure still vexes researchers.

“This is a wily, formidable adversary,” Haase said.

The biggest advances have been in antiretroviral drugs to treat the disease, Haase said. Researchers now know what parts of the virus can be neutralized, and drugs need to be available to more people, he said.

University alumna and AIDS advocate Dr. Joia Mukherjee said the face of AIDS was not the mostly white, well-to-do students attending the event. She said future physicians must see the health problems in other parts of the world as their problems, too.

“I want my grandkids to know I didn’t stand by as 60 million people are claimed by the AIDS epidemic, and I don’t think you do either,” Mukherjee said.

She said she has been a part of efforts in regions of Haiti that have shown if money is invested to pay staff well and to stock clinics with the necessary drugs, more people will be treated consistently and successfully.

Coleman said global cooperation and U.S. leadership are needed to stem the disease.

“The numbers are almost surreal,” he said of the nearly 45 million people currently infected with AIDS.

Coleman quoted a line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” to encourage unity in fighting the disease.

“The best strategy of evil is dissension among those who oppose it,” he said. “The enemy isn’t pharmaceutical companies, or a lifestyle or a politician. It’s the virus. We must envision a future without AIDS.”