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International AIDS Conference Returns To Durban, South Africa.


The International AIDS Conference returns to Durban, South Africa this week. When the conference was last held in that city, it was the year 2000, and HIV was terrifying. It was spreading rapidly around the globe, and an infection was viewed as a death sentence. As AIDS researchers converge on Durban, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports they're able to celebrate a sea change around HIV.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: It was a very different world 16 years ago in Durban. South Africa at the time was in the midst of AIDS denialism. Then-President Thabo Mbeki was publicly questioning whether HIV causes AIDS. His minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was espousing a completely unproven cocktail of beetroot, garlic, lemon and African potatoes as a treatment for the disease. Now, South Africa is a global leader around HIV. The country has more people on lifesaving anti-AIDS drugs than any other in the world.

OLIVE SHISANA: So there's a lot of hope.

BEAUBIEN: Dr. Olive Shisana is a public health researcher based in Cape Town. She's worked on HIV issues for decades. These days, she says, many things are going right in South Africa around HIV/AIDS.

SHISANA: Previously, people used to spend a lot of time going to funerals on weekends and hardly going to weddings or parties. Now, they're able to resume those kind of responsibilities of going to marry or to enjoy life.

BEAUBIEN: All this progress has actually been a bit problematic for AIDS researchers.

CHRIS BEYRER: We're really concerned that HIV is perceived to be a problem that's somewhat solved.

BEAUBIEN: Chris Beyrer is a professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University and the president of the International AIDS Society, which organizes the biennial conference. HIV/AIDS remains one of the most significant diseases of our time. In South Africa, for instance, roughly 20 percent of all adults in the country are HIV-positive. And it's even higher in some other countries in the region.

BEYRER: We're not done yet. We have a long way to go to get control of global AIDS. And I think that makes this a very exciting moment, but also a very fraught one.

BEAUBIEN: Globally, more than 35 million people are living with the virus. UNAIDS estimates that, in 2015, an additional 2 million people contracted the virus, and a million more died of AIDS-related causes. The good news is that most of the countries that have been hardest hit by the epidemic are now seeing infections decline. The bad news is that infection rates in some other parts of the world are actually going up.

BEYRER: There's two regions of the world right now where the HIV epidemic is still expanding. In other words, high rates of new infection, clinical AIDS, rising death rates.

BEAUBIEN: Beyrer says those two hotspots are Russia/Ukraine and the Middle East. The rise in HIV in the Middle East he attributes to the social disruption of war and the huge displacement of people. The surge in Eastern Europe started among injection drug users, but has since spread sexually much more widely. Beyrer says the big, global picture on HIV/AIDS is that there's been tremendous progress, and he says that should be celebrated. People are actually talking about an end to AIDS. But Beyrer points out that the one tool that will likely end the epidemic - a vaccine - is still a long way off. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.