Have we reached the beginning of the end of AIDS? Alumni Achievement Award winner Diane Havlir ’80 addressed that question on Friday, Nov. 8 during her talk in Regents Hall.
Havlir is a professor of medicine and a physician at University of California, San Francisco UCSF, and serves as Chief of the HIV/AIDS Division at San Francisco General Hospital. When the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s she was working at UCSF, and now she has been involved in patient care and clinical research for more than 25 years.
Havlir began her talk by sketching out the history of AIDS, from theories about its origin to the AIDS epidemic to the eventual discovery of effective treatment options. At the end of her speech, she reached the big question: can we conquer AIDS? She made it clear that for her, the answer is yes.
“We have a set of breakthrough scientific advances that occurred in the past couple of years,” she said.
Havlir listed “treatment as prevention,” circumcision for adult males and other discoveries, saying that the path to ending AIDS is simple: prevent further infections, detect the disease early and treat patients successfully.
For a more detailed description of that path, Havlir delved into a program she has helped develop called “Test and Treat.” Initially, Havlir’s program conducted tests in communities in east Africa to see if treating everyone in a given population would prove more effective than treating only people who had already contracted the disease, as the World Health Organization recommends. She found that treating people while they are still healthy proved most effective.
With a more inclusive treatment plan, Havlir said, “You can build clinics and not hospitals.” The “Test and Treat” program set up clinics in communities highly affected by AIDS in order to offer both treatment for the disease and general health services. Havlir stressed that “this is for health,” not just for AIDS treatment.
As evidence that the end of AIDS is near, Havlir cited numerous hopeful trends, including more people living with HIV and a projected elimination of mother-to-child HIV transmission by 2015. She called this goal “the first milestone.”
Havlir also noted barriers standing in the way of ending AIDS, the most salient of which could be financial.
“We can’t end the AIDS epidemic without money,” she said.
As for further challenges, Havlir cited patients being unaware of their status, the delay in starting therapy and inadequate outreach to particularly vulnerable populations.
The fight to end AIDS has long been on the mind of several students who met with Havlir during her visit to campus. Jade Zheng is co-chair of Oles Face AIDS, an activist organization that aims to equip young people for the fight against HIV/AIDS and to offer support to HIV-affected youth. Zheng and other students discussed the role of AIDS activism over breakfast during Havlir’s visit.”[Havlir] said that the AIDS activists really changed the conventional way of how global health works by “putting themselves at the table” and engaging the patients and people at the grassroots, which later on had a profound impact on the progress of global health,” Zheng said.For Zheng, Havlir’s visit and lecture reinforced her desire to address social justice issues after graduating from St. Olaf.
“I did not quite realize [before Havlir’s visit] what a profound role AIDS activists played in relation to the greater global health community,” Zheng said. “Hearing her positive perspectives on the role youth can play in [fundraising and advocacy] was very empowering and motivating.”
Havlir’s overall take-home message was one of hope and continued dedication. “I believe we have the scientific tools to begin to end AIDS,” she said. A key ingredient in the solution might just be the work of the next generation of AIDS caregivers, researchers and activists.