Science returns to the U.S.

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For the first time since 1990, the International AIDS Conference 2012 will be held on American soil. This is a major development.

Hosting the conference helps put the United States back into the mainstream international scientific community. The nation is increasingly becoming a scientific backwater. We are the only industrialized country on Earth where evolution and global warming are heavily doubted and science-based sex education is demonized. The return of this internationally watched and esteemed conference lends stature to our scientific community.

The International AIDS Conference began boycotting the United States 22 years ago due to the so-called “Helms Rule,” a federal law that banned granting U.S. visas to people who were HIV-positive. The ban was named after the late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., whose five Senate terms were marked by a level of anti-gay zealotry that rivals the record of former Sen. Rick Santorum.

The Helms Rule made the United States the world’s only industrialized nation to ban visitors based on their HIV status. It contributed to the marginalization of people with HIV and helped spread ignorance and fear by reinforcing the myth that the virus can be spread through casual contact.

AIDS workers were overjoyed when President Obama lifted the nation’s HIV travel ban in 2009, and they’re grateful that the 19th biennual international conference is being held in Washington, D.C., from July 22 to July 27.

The visibility is coming at an opportune time. Effective new treatments and declining infection rates among white heterosexuals have taken the epidemic off the radar of most Americans. But for gay and bisexual men, especially young gay and bisexual men of color the epidemic rages on. The rate for this group in Milwaukee tripled from 2001 to 2008.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 50,000 new HIV infections occur in the U.S. every year, many of them transmitted by people unaware that they’re HIV positive. In fact, about one in five Americans infected with the virus do not know their status.

A 2011 clinical trial found that treating HIV-positive people with anti-viral drugs could decrease their ability to transmit the virus by up to 96 percent. From that data, some researchers have speculated that the virus could be eradicated if everyone who is positive or at high risk received treatment.

That means it’s more critical than ever to get at-risk people tested and into treatment. AIDS 2012 should facilitate that process by bringing renewed attention to the disease and reducing the stigma that often discourages people from getting tested.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a new, over-the- counter HIV home-testing kit that should also help more people learn their status. Many at-risk individuals, particularly of color, are reluctant to be seen entering an HIV clinic to be tested. With the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, they can test themselves at home by swabbing their upper and lower gums and then placing the samples they acquire into a developer vial. Within 20 to 40 minutes, they’ll learn their results. A positive result means that additional, confirmatory testing should be done in a medical setting.

We hope that AIDS 2012 draws renewed attention to the U.S. epidemic and encourages more people to seek testing and receive care.