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Woman-controlled methods of preventing HIV transmission are at the forefront of this week’s International AIDS Conference in Toronto. Bill and Melinda Gates opened the conference by speaking passionately about the need to put the power to prevent HIV into the hands of women.

“No matter where she lives, who she is, or what she does—a woman should never need her partner’s permission to save her own life,” said Bill Gates.

PATH’s own work in advancing the empowerment of women has been highlighted several times:

  • On Sunday, the Toronto Star identified PATH’s Anna Forbes, deputy director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides, as an “AIDS angel of influence.” She and several others were recognized for their work in combating HIV and AIDS. Read the article at the Toronto Star website.
  • In the opening plenary session on Monday, speaker Louise Binder called attention to PATH’s Lori Heise, director of the Global Campaign for Microbicides, for her remarkable work in leading the Global Campaign and her tireless effort in championing microbicides (gels or creams that women can use to protect themselves against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections). Read the full transcript of the plenary (PDF from kaisernetwork.org).
  • An initiative to promote the introduction of a new female condom was launched at the conference. PATH is taking the engineering of this crucial tool to a new level. With colleagues around the world, PATH is working to ensure that the Woman’s Condom will be available commercially—a welcome addition to the toolkit of effective, woman-controlled interventions that can stop the spread of HIV. Read more about PATH’s Woman’s Condom.

Examining policies, challenging assumptions

Technical experts and global health leaders from PATH shared their insights on strengthening programs already in place and planning new action to slow the AIDS epidemic.

  • Before the conference began, PATH staff from Ukraine participated in high-level meetings that explored the gaps in health coverage experienced by people who are co-infected with HIV and tuberculosis. HIV has helped reopen the doorway to epidemic tuberculosis in Eastern Europe, and there is an urgent need for information and training that will halt the spread. Read more about programs that address this issue.
  • In an early session that addressed the rights of sex workers, Dr. Amitrajit Saha, from PATH’s India office, spoke authoritatively about creating systems that are based on solid research—and thus can make change happen where it is so desperately needed. Later, Jeff O’Malley, country leader for PATH’s work in India, spoke as a discussant on another panel, offering a passionate account of the challenge presented by stigma in the context of HIV and AIDS. His focus on the potential for the global community to act together to eliminate discrimination provided a human backdrop to the technical discussion that followed.
  • During a panel provocatively titled “Youth and HIV: What’s Sex Got to Do With It?” PATH’s Julie Pulerwitz, a specialist in the field of behavior change, shared the results of studies of Kenyan youth awareness of three HIV prevention methods: abstinence, being faithful, and using condoms. This information will ensure that young people not only learn how to avoid contracting HIV, but actually absorb and use this lifesaving information. Read about methods of engaging youth in prevention messages.
  • In the only conference session dedicated to infant feeding and newborn nutrition, PATH senior nutritionist Ted Greiner and senior program officer Christina Kramer presented, with other experts, an examination of standing policies about HIV transmission and breastfeeding. PATH staff are leading the effort to act on new evidence that exclusive breastfeeding not only reduces HIV transmission, but also increases infant survival.
  • Lori Heise spoke in a session on “HIV Prevention: Evolution and Change in Programme Development.” Her appearance was an opportunity to reflect on the enormous strides that have been made in the perception of women’s role—now considered essential—in HIV prevention.
  • One of the liveliest discussions occurred in a session dealing with the challenging ethical issues involved in human clinical trials. Anna Forbes spoke about the importance of considering the long-term needs of HIV-positive trial participants—such as access to health care, counseling, and antiretroviral drugs—while meeting the immediate needs of people who already are dealing with AIDS.
  • Rebekah Webb, from PATH’s Washington, DC, office and the Global Campaign for Microbicides, offered insights from the Campaign’s work to prepare for the eventual introduction of microbicides, a technology that can empower women to protect themselves against HIV. Find out more about the Global Campaign.

PATH staff from around the world also presented posters to share research results and lessons learned on many topics, from empowering neglected populations in the fight against AIDS to building links between health sectors that will make sure no patient falls through the cracks or is denied access to health care.

Ideas into action

PATH is proud of the work our staff are doing all over the world and glad of the opportunity to contribute to this important global discussion about how best to confront HIV and AIDS. We look forward to the rest of the event—and to acting on new inspirations and challenges when it concludes.