CROI 2017: A story of scientific collaboration, and resistance to travel ban highlight benefits of cross-border research

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Science Speaks is covering the 2017 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle Washington live this week, from February 13-16, with breaking news on HIV research findings and implications.

SEATTLE – There was a time that when people thought of Zimbabwe, Dr. James Hakim said here Monday night, they thought of Victoria Falls, magnificent wildlife — the “Big Five” — and the graceful curves of Shona stone sculpture. That was before the HIV pandemic exploded in his country amidst crippling economic inflation and political denial that set additional hurdles in the way of effective responses. Dr. Hakim delivered the N’Galy-Mann Lecture Monday night, a tradition at this conference that honors the work of Drs.Bosenge N’Galy and Jonathan Mann for the groundwork they laid together for the fight against HIV in Africa,  and his story paid tribute to  both the global response, and the Zimbabwean contributions that followed.

Dr. Hakim, of the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, had his own course redirected by his country’s epidemic, from a planned career in cardiology to realizing he had to learn about HIV if he was to help at all. He told a familiar story of devastation, followed by a story that unwound more slowly, of collaboration and progress and more than two decades of scientific partnerships in the years that followed Zimbabwe’s first confirmed case of HIV in 1986. Those collaborations, in turn, through the HIV Prevention Trials Network, the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, The International Maternal Pediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Group, the Microbicides Trials Network, and the HIV Vaccine Trials Network, have produced findings that have changed the course of HIV prevention, care, treatment and policies worldwide. In Zimbabwe, those changes, in turn, will be supported by about one hundred new health practitioners trained through the Medical Education Partnership Initiative established under U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Eric Goosby  in 2010. The initiative, Dr. Hakim noted, is just beginning to address the inequities and global health threats that happen when a region is home to more than a quarter of the world’s disease burden, but just three percent of the world’s health workforce. The challenges they face include sustaining the drops in deaths and new infections the country has achieved, and ensuring that progress can be tracked.

Dr. Hakim’s story of progress through partnership followed a theme emphasized by CROI conference chair Dr. Susan Buchbinder as she welcomed more than 4000 delegates, about 40 percent of whom came here from outside the United States. “CROI is a truly international gathering,” she had noted earlier. Conference organizers had issued a statement condemning the travel ban signed by President Trump Jan. 27 barring people from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the United States. The ban, which was subsequently halted by a Seattle-based judge, would have kept scientists from attending the conference and participating in the exchange of knowledge here, Dr. Buchbinder noted. “If policies like this are not swiftly and definitively rejected,” she said, “they will have a detrimental effect on science.” She urged attendees here to consider attending another gathering soon, the planned April 22 March for Science in Washington, DC.

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