Black AIDS Institute Hosts News-Makers at CROI 2017

CROI backpacks await members of the BTAN delegation to the annual event held this year in Seattle

Where do we stand when it comes to bringing an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic?

That was the question posed when new HIV data was showcased at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), held Feb. 13-16 in Seattle.

The Black AIDS Institute hosted daily breakfast updates where scientists and other experts who presented at the conference gave attendees a preview of their findings and discussed their results within the context of the Black epidemic. Here's what the Black community needs to know.

Day 1

On the first day of the conference, the Black AIDS Institute hosted Susan P. Buchbinder, M.D., chair of the conference's Scientific Program Committee, and Barney Graham, M.D., Ph.D., deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Buchbinder provided an overview of the conference, while Dr. Graham discussed some of the latest research surrounding vaccines and antibodies.

Among the information shared at CROI was discussion about how certain antibodies may eventually be used as a tool in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS. That's promising news for Black Americans, who represent 40 percent of all Americans living with HIV and 45 percent of new infections. Because Black Americans carry the most severe burden of HIV/AIDS, they have the most to gain when it comes to preventing and treating the disease.

Day 2

On Tuesday the theme of the breakfast turned to testing as the Black AIDS Institute hosted Ilesh Jani, Ph.D., director general of the National Institute of Health in Mozambique, and Nicole Crepaz, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. In order to increase the number of Black Americans with HIV who are in treatment, people have to know they are infected. At the end of 2013, 1 in 8 Black Americans did not know they had HIV, according to the CDC. Effective testing methods are necessary because a lack of awareness of HIV-positive status in a community increases that community's risk. The conference showcased testing methods that various organizations have found to be effective and that may make a difference in Black communities.

Day 3

On Wednesday speakers at the breakfast update included Sharon Hillier, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, and Deb Baron of the ECHO Consortium, a multiorganizational team working to explore whether the use of hormonal contraception methods can increase a woman's risk of acquiring HIV. During the conference, new research shed light on how the microbiome, or bacteria in our bodies, affects the effectiveness of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for women.

According to some of the research, one type of vaginally applied gel may not be as effective when certain types of bacteria are present in the body. Black women are more likely to acquire HIV than women of other races. In 2015 there were 4,524 Black women diagnosed with HIV, compared with 1,131 Latinas and 1,431 White women. If there are factors that are making PrEP for women less effective, it is critical that Black women are aware of them.

Day 4

Finally, on the last day of the conference, the theme of the breakfast update was the search for a cure. The conference wrapped up with a look at how close we are to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic once and for all. The good news is, there have been some strides. The CDC released statistics showing that the number of HIV infections in the United States per year fell 18 percent between 2008 and 2014.

However, not all groups saw a decline. New infections remained stable among Black gay men and increased by 35 percent among gay and bisexual men between the ages of 25 and 34. That suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done to address the disparities so that all groups will see declines in the rate of infection. Only then will we see an end to the epidemic in the United States and across the world.

Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.