By LAURAN NEERGAARD
AP Medical Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - An AIDS-free generation: It seems an audacious goal, considering how the HIV epidemic still is raging around the world.
Yet more than 20,000 international HIV researchers and activists will gather in the nation's capital later this month with a sense of optimism not seen in many years _ hope that it finally may be possible to dramatically stem the spread of the AIDS virus.
"We want to make sure we don't overpromise," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health's infectious disease chief, told The Associated Press. But, he said, "I think we are at a turning point."
The big new focus is on trying to get more people with HIV treated early, when they're first infected, instead of waiting until they're weakened or sick, as the world largely has done until now. Staying healthier also makes them less likely to infect others.
That's a tall order. But studies over the past two years have shown what Fauci calls "striking, sometimes breathtaking results," in preventing people at high risk of HIV from getting it in some of the hardest-hit countries, using this treatment-as-prevention and some other protections.
Now, as the International AIDS Conference returns to the U.S. for the first time in 22 years, the question is whether the world will come up with the money and the know-how to put the best combinations of protections into practice, for AIDS-ravaged poor countries and hot spots in developed nations as well.
"We have the tools to make it happen," said Dr. Elly Katabira, president of the International AIDS Society, which organizes the world's largest HIV conference, set for July 22-27. He points to strides already in Botswana and Rwanda in increasing access to AIDS drugs.
But Fauci cautioned that moving those tools into everyday life is "a daunting challenge," given the costs of medications and the difficulty in getting people to take them for years despite poverty and other competing health and social problems.
In the U.S., part of that challenge is complacency. Despite 50,000 new HIV infections here every year, an AP-GfK poll finds that very few people in the United States worry about getting the virus.
Also, HIV increasingly is an epidemic of the poor, minorities and urban areas such as the District of Columbia, where the rate of infection rivals some developing countries. The conference will spotlight this city's aggressive steps to fight back: A massive effort to find the undiagnosed, with routine testing in some hospitals, testing vans that roam the streets, even free tests at a Department of Motor Vehicles office, and then rapidly getting those patients into care.
"These are the true champions," Dr. Mohammed Akhter, director of the city's health department, said of patients who faithfully take their medication. "They're also protecting their community."
A few miles east of the Capitol and the tourist-clogged monuments, the Community Education Group's HIV testing van pulls into a parking lot in a low-income neighborhood with a particularly high infection rate. An incentive for the crowd at a nearby corner is the offer of a $10 supermarket gift card for getting tested.
Christopher Freeman, 23, is first in line. He was tested earlier this year and says showing off that official paper proclaiming him HIV-negative attracts "the ladies."
"Forget money, it's the best thing you can show them," he said.
But that test was months ago, and Freeman admits he seldom uses condoms. He climbs into the van and rubs a swab over his gums. Twenty minutes later, he's back for the result: Good news _ no HIV. But counselor Amanda Matthews has Freeman go through a list of the risk factors; it's education to try to keep him and his future partners safe.
"Just try to get yourself in the habit of using condoms," she said. "You say it's hard to use condoms but what if you do contract the virus? Then you've got to take medications every day."
Freeman waves his new test result with a grin, and walks off with a handful of free condoms.
At a nearby bus stop, counselor Laila Patrick encounters a little resistance while handing out condoms, when a woman says that encourages sex outside of marriage.
"Stopping AIDS is everyone's business. You're looking out for the next person," Patrick said. "You might just want to help someone be safe."
About 34 million people worldwide have HIV, including almost 1.2 million Americans. It's a very different epidemic from the last time the International AIDS Conference came to the United States, in 1990. Life-saving drugs emerged a few years later, turning HIV from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease for people and countries that can afford the medications.