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Speaking Up guest blogger – Angelina Namiba

On the evening of Wednesday 21st of November, fellow HIV activists Winnie Sseruma, Silvia Petretti and I were invited to a posh dinner at which Professor Francoise Barre-Sinousi was the keynote speaker. Prof.Barre-Sinousi is the Director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2008 together with Professor Luc Montagnier for their discovery of HIV.
The event was hosted by the energetic and passionate Professor Jane Anderson, Chair of BHIVA. . Attendees included the great and the good of the HIV sector. HIV clinicians; researchers, heads of HIV charities and the odd celebrity. Winnie Sseruma somehow managed to spot Rowan Atkinson aka Mr Bean, who quietly mingled with the other guests.
The dinner was in the Apothecaries’ Hall, one of the oldest Livery Halls in the City. I was completely over-awed by the surroundings. The Hall’s beautifully furbished Great Hall, Court room and Parlour remain as they were since 1670! It had a most magical atmosphere, nestled in the back streets behind St Paul’s Cathedral it is a portal into another time. The apothecaries’ Livery Company still plays a very active role in the field of medicine today. It was a very traditional English dinner and we were even shown into dinner by the beadle dressed in full regalia!
As we tucked into our posh meal, we listened to Professor Jane Anderson and Dr Sarah Fidler, an award winning researcher on the eradication of HIV from Imperial College, remind us where we are in the search for a cure. The key points both Doctors covered included:
We have been successful to a great extent with raising awareness and developing prevention interventions as well as treatment for HIV, with an armoury of more than 30 drugs now available to treat HIV. But that we are still challenged with HIV related stigma and discrimination.
Vaccines and a cure are possible, but they will probably not be in the form that we envision them. They might be functional because HIV keeps changing and therefore interventions might include treatment. It might be that people living with HIV with an undetectable virus might be able to stop their treatment for a few years and still remain undetectable.
In order for us to continue to make the impact we want in addressing HIV, we need to not loose the focus on women and addressing issues that affect us.
BHIVA is at the beginning of starting to invest in research for a cure as well as continuing work around clinical trials.
One of the key lessons both professors have learnt as we advance towards the search for a cure, is the importance of listening to and working with people living with HIV. That the information and lessons they have learnt from people with HIV have made their work worthwhile.
The speeches were brought to a rousing end by my friend and colleague Silvia Petretti who succinctly provided a patient’s perspective on why we need a cure. Firstly to ensure good quality of life, daily pill taking coupled with long term side effects hugely impact on people”s ability to fully enjoy their lives. Secondly stigma, which will only go away if HIV can be cured, like other sexually transmitted diseases. And last but not least because of economic reasons: with over 34 million people living with HIV worldwide, and most of them in low or middle income countries, we cannot afford to keep them on treatment for life, surely there are better things we could do with that money.

The take home message – neatly wrapped in a glorious relaxing herbal tea bag in our goodie bags – was the simple fact that, if we infuse hope with the dream, add imagination to the knowledge and skills gained we can, with everyone’s (patients; clinicians; researchers; political will; funding and community) support, find a cure. So as you all go about your daily business, try and take a moment to contemplate a world where HIV does not exist. Many amongst the 34.2 million of us women, men and children currently living with HIV today dream of that day.

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