2006 Toronto AIDS Conference

As the 2006 AIDS Conference in Toronto rolled into town, I could not have gone without mentioning it in a PROFIT CONFIDENTIAL article. For subscribers to my BIO-TECH BREAKTHROUGH newsletter, you will find more information about the conference, as well as my new stock picks of drug manufacturers working on finding a cure, vaccine or, at the very least, cheaper and better AIDS management drugs.

That said, allow me to elaborate a bit on how Canadian and world media treated the Toronto 16th International AIDS Conference. To a layman’s eye, it certainly appeared as a major media event, comparable, at times, to a hype that only Hollywood celebrities can create.

Not surprisingly, such sensationalistic treatment of a serious issue created two opposing views as to how global fight against AIDS should be approached: That is, as a serious scientific effort or as an issue of public awareness.

Dr. Robert Gallo, a scientist who co-discovered HIV virus some 25 odd years ago, clearly belongs to the former group. Dr. Gallo said that the media attention he received at the previous AIDS Conference held in Barcelona was the reason why he refused to attend the Toronto conference. In Barcelona, he was literally treated as a celebrity, with cameras flashing constantly and journalists following his every move as if he were a pop star, and not a serious scientist working on finding a cure for a serious disease.

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Dr. Gallo believes that creating media hype diverts attention from science, which is supposed to be at the core of the AIDS conferences. So far, all major HIV discoveries happened in laboratories, under a microscope, and far away from the media. It is not even a question of scientists feeling out of their element at gatherings such as the AIDS Conference. Rather, Dr. Gallo thinks it is an issue of degrading science at the expense of scoring a few points in the eyes of the media.

Dr. Gallo also believes that because of media hype, the quality of the Toronto AIDS Conference leaves much to be desired, perhaps because many other experts in the field feel the same way about being haunted by journalists as Dr. Gallo.

In addition to placing science at the back burner, such media- heavy events are also typically followed by numerous activist “events,” for lack of a better word. Activists surely like the heightened (and free), media attention, in order to seek answers to questions everyone would like answered, including where is the cure for AIDS. But, in Dr. Gallo’s view, this is still only good theatre, and quite removed from serious science.

The other side argues that diseases such as AIDS need public awareness, as well as media and celebrities to help raise it. Famous names, such as Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Richard Gere, or Alicia Keys, and particularly their money and their just as wealthy entourage, are needed to raise public awareness and help either raise or donate money to AIDS research.

Their message is that of fight, of not giving up, and of hope. We may live in a world of topsy-turvy sets of values, but the fact remains that when Bill Clinton grabs a microphone, that same world listens. On the other hand, when scientists gather and talk in high-level code, they capture virtually no one’s attention.

So, which approach is better? It’s hard to say. The easiest would be to say let’s find the middle ground. I’m afraid when dealing with a disease such as AIDS, emotions run too high for middle ground.

It is more likely that scientists will have to get used to media attention, activists’ demonstrations, even the celebrity circus, if need be. We still don’t have a cure for AIDS. The disease is still only in the management stage.

On the other hand, every minute, more and more people are either infected or at risk of contracting HIV. Even more alarming is the fact that money plays a crucial role in whether they will receive adequate medical treatment or not. The cure for AIDS needs scientists to solve the puzzle, and scientists need celebrities to help them find the money needed to pay for AIDS research.

Conferences such as this are needed to formulate the global health message about AIDS, while journalists are needed to disseminate it. It is as simple as that, the ivory tower and satellite dish will just have to work in unison.