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Experts call for more treatment to curb global AIDS epidemic

WASHINGTON -- Call it a triple win for fighting the AIDS epidemic: Treating people with HIV early keeps them healthy, cuts their chances of infecting others, and now research shows it is also a good financial investment.

The International AIDS Conference closed Friday with the message that getting treatment to more of the world's 34 million people with HIV is key to curbing the epidemic, short of a vaccine and cure that still are years away.

“It is unacceptable” that scientifically proven treatment and prevention tools aren't reaching people who need them most, Nobel laureate Dr. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, co-discoverer of the AIDS virus and new president of the International AIDS Society, told the meeting's closing session.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose foundation funds HIV work, also addressed the group. “All of you have created the possibility that we could have an AIDS-free generation,” he said. “We just have to keep pushing the rocks up the hill.”

Spreading treatment will be hugely expensive up-front, but Harvard researchers said Friday that the investment would actually save hard-hit South Africa some money over five years, as savings from treating AIDS-related illnesses exceed the medications' price. Eventually those savings will be overtaken by the costs of treating millions for decades, but treatment-as-prevention still is highly cost-effective, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky of the Harvard Center for AIDS Research.

“People used to think there was no way we can do this,” said Dr. Diane Havlir of the University of California, San Francisco, who co-chaired the world's largest AIDS meeting. With both scientific and financial validation, “for the first time we're optimistic that we can.”

But new U.S. data show how hard effective treatment is, even in developed countries. Here, most HIV patients have access to treatment, and guidelines say they all should be offered it right after diagnosis. Yet just one in four have their infections under control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday. Young people and blacks fare the worst.

“We now need big thinking” to improve that number, said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's AIDS center, who would like to see it at least doubled soon. “We have the tools. Now we have to move them into real-world policy so they touch the lives of those who need them most.”

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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, Friday, July 27. (AP)

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