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The 11 most important AIDS stories of 2009

By Selena Watkins,
12.01.2009 8:54am EST

[Yesterday was] the 21st anniversary of World AIDS Day, the international day that reflects on the global health epidemic . There are 33 million people infected with the virus worldwide, including 2.31 million in India alone.

According to the World AIDS Campaign, new figures have been released by the World Health Organization and UNAIDS estimating that the number of new HIV infections have declined each year by about 17% from 2001 to 2008, but for every five people infected, only two start treatment.
Here is a look at 11 news stories on HIV/AIDS that have been significant in 2009.

1. The first doctor to report on AIDS dies in his home

In July, Dr. Joel Weisman, the private physician who co-authored the first AIDS report in 1981, died at 66.

In 1980, Weisman tended to three gay patients with a collection of symptoms that soon became known as signposts for AIDS. Weisman referred the three men to Dr. Martin Gottlieb, a University of California – Los Angeles immunologist.

Weisman and Gottlieb wrote a brief based on their findings published in a June 1981 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and it became the first report on AIDS in medical literature.

Weisman was ill for several months with heart disease before he died in his Los Angeles home with his partner, Bill Hutton, by his side.

2. HIV travel ban ends

On Oct. 30, President Barack Obama signed an extension of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS bill. The legislation provides care, treatment and support services to half a million people infected with the virus, most of whom are low-income.

The Department of Health and Human Services also implemented a new regulation to end the HIV Travel and Immigration Ban.

Obama said, “We often speak as if AIDS is going on somewhere else. Often overlooked is that we face a serious HIV/AIDS epidemic of our own.”

There are over one million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States; more than 56,000 cases are added each year. For 22 years, the U.S. had one of the strictest policies on the immigration and travel of HIV-positive people, banning them from the country.

Obama hopes lifting of the ban will help end the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS.

The regulation goes into effect in January.

3. AIDS is top killer of young women around the world

A study released in November by the World Health Organization showed that HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in women ages 15 to 44. Of the 30.8 million HIV-positive adults in 2007, 15.5 million were women.

WHO identified unprotected sex as the highest factor for 1 in 5 deaths within the demographic. WHO also reported that lack of access to contraceptives puts young women at higher risk.

“Women who do not know how to protect themselves from such infections, or who are unable to do so, face increased risks of death or illness,” said WHO in their 91-page report.

The report showed that “Young women are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection, due to a combination of biological factors, lack of access to information and services, and social norms and values that undermine their ability to protect themselves.”

4. AIDS rates rise in the nation’s capital

In March, Health officials released a report revealing that at least 3 percent of residents in the Washington, D.C. area are living with HIV/AIDS.

Almost 1 in 10 of those residents between ages 40 and 49 are living with HIV; and black men have the highest infection rate at almost 7 percent.

The findings in the 2008 epidemiology report by the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration point to the severe epidemic that’s impacting every race and sex across the population and neighborhoods.

The report said that the number of cases increased drastically by 22 percent and the number one mode of transmission is men having sex with men. The second mode of transmission noted is by heterosexual drug users.

5. New strain of HIV discovered

European scientists discovered a new strain of HIV linked to gorillas.

This may be the first time scientists have documented transmission of a simian immunodeficiency virus from gorillas to humans. All other known strains of HIV have been linked to chimpanzees.

One explanation for the new virus’s emergence and transmission is the human’s slaughtering of apes and eating of their meat.

The virus strain was identified in 2004 when a 62-year-old arrived in Paris from Cameroon, West Africa. Scientists reported that the woman had lost weight and had been ill with fever a number of times in 2003.

The report, published in August, presumed that she had been infected through sex. The woman told doctors that she had sexual partners since her husband’s death in 1984, but she didn’t know if they were infected.

6. AIDS advocate Martin Delany dies at 63

In January, Martin Delaney, a prominent advocate for AIDS, died in San Rafael, Calif.

The cause was liver cancer, said Dana Van Gorder, executive director of Project Inform, an AIDS advocacy organization based in San Francisco that Mr. Delaney helped found in 1985.

When several of his friends became infected and died, Delaney was drawn to the AIDS movement. However, he was never diagnosed with the HIV virus himself.

Delany challenged the government and drug companies to expedite access to experimental treatments. By the early 1990s, Delaney was a leader in his efforts to push the Food and Drug Administration to approve promising drugs more speedily.

From 1991 to 1995 he was a member of the AIDS Research Advisory Committee.

The Director of the institute, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, said in a statement, “Millions of people are now receiving life-saving antiretroviral medications from a treatment pipeline that Marty Delaney played a key role in opening and expanding.”

Delany was 63.

7. $100 million for AIDS Vaccine Research

A businessman pledged $100 million to Massachusetts General Hospital to create an institute that will search for vaccines for AIDS and other infectious diseases.

Phillip Ragon, 59, is the founder and sole owner of InterSystems Corp., a Cambridge company that provides database software to hospitals and other industries. His donation will create an institute in his name that will bring scientists, clinicians and engineers together from Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Massachusetts General to fight infectious diseases and cancers.

The Phillip T. and Susan M. Ragon Institute will mainly work towards finding an effective vaccine against AIDS.

According to hospital officials, the $100 million pledge is the largest donation in the hospital’s history.

8. HIV in the porn industry

22 actors in adult sex movies contracted HIV since 2004, according to Los Angeles Health officials.

The officials accused the pornography industry’s health clinic of failing to cooperate with state investigations and of failing to protect industry workers and their sexual partners.

In June, an actress who works in Southern California’s porn industry tested positive for HIV.

A timeline shows that the actress tested negative for HIV on April 29, but that a positive test result was confirmed on June 4. The woman then performed in a film on June 5 for undisclosed reasons and a second test came back positive on June 6.

The actor who performed with the infected woman on June 5 tested negative for the virus, but HIV infections have months-long incubation periods.

Health advocates have pressed for legislation requiring condom use in sex scenes.

According to Steven Hirsch, chief executive of Vivid Entertainment, condoms are optional among actors. “Performers have the right to choose to use or not use condoms,” said Hirsch. “They’re adults; they know what industry they’re in.”

9. HIV rates rise drastically among Asian men

The WHO reported that the AIDS virus is spreading rapidly among Asian men. Asia is believed to have the world’s largest number of men who have sex with other men, with an estimate of 10 million.

There is very low usage of condoms among younger men in male to male relationships and local authorities have not successfully educated the youth about the disease and prevention, said health officials.

“Younger men engaging in sex with men are entering into a sexual arena without the same level of awareness and without taking the same level of protection that the older generation was taking,” said Massimo Ghidinelli, the World Health Organization’s regional adviser on HIV/AIDS.

Ghidinelli also warned that the epidemic will worsen drastically unless there is better education and politics to fight the spread of the disease.

10. South Africa stops funding AIDS research

South Africa stopped funding research for the AIDS vaccine according to a leading scientist.

Anna-Lise Williamson, an AIDS researcher at the University of Cape Town, told The Associated Press that the clinical vaccine trial on humans would continue on its way with U.S. funding but that South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology would stopped funding her research.

Even though South Africa’s science minister appeared with Williamson at a ceremony to launch the vaccine trial, he did not immediately return calls regarding the termination of his funding.

“For vaccine development presently, the South African AIDS Vaccine initiative has no money,” Williamson said. “If we do not continue working on this, we will never have a vaccine… it’s incredibly important that we keep working.”

Around 5.2 million South Africans were living with HIV last year – the highest number of any country in the world. Young women were hit the hardest, with one-third of those aged 20-to-34 infected with the virus.

11. Court rules in favor of Chicago drug maker

A federal appeals court rejected a lawsuit that accused Chicago drug maker, Abbott Laboratories, of antitrust violations over a sudden 400-percent price hike of a popular AIDS drug.

The company was sued in 2004 by advocacy groups and drug benefit providers. They said that Abbott raised the price of the HIV-fighting Norvir to defeat competition and boost sales of Kaletra, its own alternative to Norvir.

Abbott paid $10 million to settle the lawsuit and agreed to let the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determine if the price hike was illegal.

The court ruled in Abbott’s favor Tuesday. If it had lost, Abbott would have had to pay an additional $17.5 million.

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