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CROI 2013: Sequester Cuts Already Felt at Retrovirus Conference

, by Reilly O'Neal

The 20th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections has officially ended, bringing to a close a four-day gathering of leading scientists whose work moves us closer to new tools for preventing, treating, and curing HIV/AIDS.

The conference officially opened Sunday evening with a thought-provoking history lesson from Kevin De Cock, director of the CDC Center for Global Health. “In 1991, controversy erupted on Capitol Hill,” he explained, over the news that several hundred government-funded scientists were headed to Florence, Italy, for the International AIDS Conference—a trip that was seen as questionable use of federal funds. Some reached the Rome airport only to be ordered home.

Two years later, the first Retrovirus Conference (also known as CROI) was launched to provide a domestic venue for U.S. scientists to share knowledge about HIV and its management. The conference’s outlook has become more international in the years since, as has its roster of attendees: Participants in this year’s meeting hail from more than 90 countries.

But an echo from those early days could be heard at this year’s conference, two decades later: Thanks to the March 1 “sequester” cuts, designed to trim 5.1% from virtually every line item in the federal budget, some of the roughly 4,200 delegates who registered for the 2013 Retrovirus Conference were missing.

Learn more about what federal budget cuts could do to HIV/AIDS programs in “Ask a Policy Wonk: What Do the Sequester Cuts Mean for You?

In a press conference prior to the opening session, De Cock acknowledged that “it’s slightly unexpected that 20 years later we have to face cancellations.” At the same press conference, Lynne Mofenson of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (part of the National Institutes of Health) shared that only half the registered delegates from her own branch were able to attend.

At another media conference the following day, one press member asked Stanford University researcher Eran Bendavid to comment on the effects that cuts to the federal PEPFAR program (short for the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief) may have on child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, his area of research. Foreign aid is discretionary spending, Bendavid answered, “so in as much as the sequester is across-the-board cuts, that is going to be affected.” Furthermore, he added, when public opinion polls ask “which government programs should or should not be cut, foreign aids often comes up as one of those that are most vulnerable.”

Researcher Susie Hoffman of Columbia University, presenting at CROI on efforts to increase engagement in HIV care in sub-Saharan Africa, agreed with this assessment of public opinion: “People are saying that we don’t need to have as much international U.S. funding to developing countries to scale up and support their care and treatment programs. So yes, the advances that have been made are threatened with any of those cutbacks.”

The highly anticipated data presented in Atlanta this week came from research conducted by dedicated scientists working to alter the course of an epidemic that continues to claim real lives the world over.

This fact was put into perspective in the opening session by Kevin De Cock, who advised that “CROI is about science, but remember that AIDS is about people.

Reilly O’Neal is a freelance writer and former editor of BETA.

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