What a month March has been! I was in Boston, USA for the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2014) where some very promising HIV cure related science made global headlines but more of that in my next blog.
After a brief stop off in San Francisco and Melbourne I travelled to India to take AIDS 2014 on the road.
My first stop was New Delhi where UNAIDS India and the Government of Victoria hosted a public seminar where I delivered a lecture detailing the progress on work towards an HIV cure. Prior to the seminar I met with journalists from some of the country's leading newspapers and it is my hope we will see some of those outlets reporting on AIDS 2014 from Melbourne.
The seminar attracted lots of questions from an audience mainly consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Health, parliamentarians, UN Agencies, development partners, implementing partners and local scientists. While participants were interested in recent developments in HIV cure research, the lecture was also an opportunity to reinforce the importance of people testing for HIV and having access to treatment.
From Delhi we travelled to Pune, the home city of the National AIDS Research Institute (NARI), the regional scientific partner for the conference co-ordinating committee (CCC) for AIDS2014. NARI has close to 80 permanent staff working on different aspects of HIV - basic, clinical and social science, all based at the one institute.
NARI´s Director Dr Ramesh Paranjape was gracious enough to introduce me to many of the NARI staff, including the two full time physicians who staff the clinic of close to 3000 patients on ART! The very same clinic also participates in large clinical trials and had a big role in the HPTN052 study which showed the benefit of early ART in HIV discordant couples. They recruited 250 couples to the study which I thought was pretty impressive!
I later met with representatives from communities living with HIV. It was quite a new experience to be sitting with a large group of young women infected with HIV - most would have been in their late teens and early 20s. This is the face of HIV in India and clearly very different to our experience in Australia. It is why we must also make certain that the Asia Pacific region gets the focus at AIDS 2014 that it so needs.
On to the HIV Congress in Mumbai where I gave a talk on HIV Cure and was pleased to be joined at the conference by many international colleagues, including the scientific program chair for AIDS2014, Dr Juergen Rochstroh and many staff from the Alfred Hospital including Jenny Hoy, Joe Sasadeusz and Michele Giles, all of whom gave excellent presentations.
I spent that afternoon with Laxmi Narayan Tripati - a well known transgender woman from the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, the regional community partner of the CCC for AIDS 2014 . Laxmi accompanied me on a visit to the 'red light' district where we met with transgender sex workers, many of whom are HIV infected. It was eye opening and somewhat sobering to see how these women live and work.
Transgender women have been part of Indian society for centuries and live as separate tight knit communities. Although they are marginalised and few remain in contact with their biological families, they are believed to bring luck to newborns and newlyweds. There are 5 or 6 large "clans" of transgender women in Mumbai and many are now sex workers. The prevalence of HIV in these communities is close to 40% which is extraordinarily high. Although there is widespread access to condoms in these brothels - largely due to the efforts of our colleague Laxmi - ongoing infection continues.
And to round off what was whirlwind trip, I got to meet one of Bollywood's biggest stars, Salman Khan.
Apparently, in 2010 People Magazine in India declared him the Sexiest Man Alive and in 2011, 2012 and 2013 he was declared the Times of India's Most Desirable Man! Together with Laxmi, we spoke to him about the challenges preventing and managing HIV in India. Mr Khan has been invited to attend AIDS 2014 but due to his filming schedule is unable to attend, but we are hopeful of engaging him with the conference in other ways.
Talking of which, it's back to Melbourne where preparations are underway for the AIDS 2014 program marathon meeting in mid April -this is the serious part where we put the finishing touches on what I am sure will be an outstanding program. More on that soon.