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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Activists Set for Push At AIDS Conference

WASHINGTON -- Ten years ago, U.S. AIDS activists were obstructing traffic, disrupting churches, and generally screaming at the top of their lungs.

Today, activists serve on the top U.S. scientific advisory committees and policy panels, helping to evaluate policy and shape the priorities of the research community.

They confer with top executives at drug companies, lobby Congress and run extensive social and community service groups that help people cope with the myriad medical, legal and practical problems engendered by the deadly virus.

None of this means activists have sworn off demonstration -- there will be spectacle galore when thousands of scientists, policymakers, advocates and journalists descend on Vancouver, British Columbia, next week for the 11th International Conference on AIDS.

"We want to bring out the conflict of interest in this conference -- that the main push is promotion of pharmaceutical company products," said Dave Pasquerelli, of ACT UP San Francisco, one of the more militant groups which is at odds with a number of other AIDS organizations.

Activists, scientists and policymakers alike describe a radically different relationship between the AIDS community and the government and between the activists and the pharmaceutical companies.

They cite several reasons -- changing attitudes in U.S. society toward AIDS, a Democratic administration in Washington that is perceived as more open to AIDS advocates than the Republican administrations, and a new outlook from activists themselves.

"A lot of doors had to be forced open; we didn't have a place at the table, and civil disobedience was a major component," said Peter Staley, an activist with ACT UP in its militant days in the 1980s who is now involved with the Treatment Action Group, which has drug development and drug access on its agenda.

The changes wrought in part by AIDS advocacy groups extend beyond HIV. The National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control have all made changes in how they conduct business. That affects U.S. health policy in general, whether in getting drugs to people more quickly or giving a greater voice to patients and their families.