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HIV specialists, advocates urge international action at "turning point" in AIDS fight

Activists take part in the Keep the Promise Alive 2012 AIDS march and rally on the streets of Washington, July 22, 2012. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages

(CBS/AP) Attendees at the world's largest AIDS conference are urging international governments to not cut back on the fight against the epidemic when it is at a turning point.

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The AIDS 2012: XIX International AIDS Conference kicked off in Washington on Sunday and will last through Friday. The conference will include panels and presentations with more than 20,000 scientists, people living with HIV and policy-makers in attendance.

The conference aims to figure out how to turn scientific advances into practical protections, making valuable additions to those tried-and-true condoms.

There is no cure or vaccine yet for HIV, but scientists say they have the tools to finally stem the spread of this intractable virus - largely by using treatment not just to save patients but to make them less infectious, too.

"There is no doubt, that our progress over the past 30 years has been impressive, but maintaining the status quo is simply not enough," Dr. Diane Havlir, U.S. co-chair of AIDS 2012 and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement. "My message to policy makers around the entire world watching us here in D.C. is this - invest in science, invest in the epidemic - you will save lives."

Ahead of the meeting, HIV specialists released a "road map" strategy for a cure that included learning why some people are naturally resistant to the disease through a mutation and how to harness that into a possible preventive treatment, or developing strategies to attack disease reservoirs in the body where HIV hibernates in some patients.

"We must resolve together never to go backwards," added Dr. Elly Katabira, president of the International AIDS Society, during the conference's opening session late Sunday.

New treatment recommendations presented at the conference and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association state that treating people with HIV early, before they're sick, not only is life-saving for them but lowers their chances of spreading the virus through sex. The recommendations state early antiretroviral therapy should be offered to all patients diagnosed with HIV regardless of immune system cell counts and presence of symptoms.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. AIDS researcher, said that already, regions that are pushing to get more people tested and rushed into treatment are starting to see infections drop, from San Francisco and Washington to part of South Africa.

On another front, healthy people can take the daily AIDS medicine Truvada to lower their risk of infection from a sexual partner following the Food and Drug Administration's approval of Gilead's drug for that indication. Hard-hit countries are grappling with how to try that protection in their highest-risk populations.

Other goals include getting more HIV-infected pregnant women treated to protect their babies, and getting more men circumcised in developing countries to protect them from heterosexual infection.

But money is a big challenge during a global recession - and for countries weary of the fight against a disease with an ever-growing number of people who need care. Today, there are 34.2 million people living with HIV, and while infections are dropping slowly, still 2.5 million are infected every year.

The world spent $16.8 billion fighting AIDS in poor countries, the hardest-hit, last year. But that's still $7 billion a year shy of the amount needed to nearly double the 8 million people getting life-saving drugs by the world's goal of 2015.

"This gap is killing people," UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibe told the conference. "My friends, the end of AIDS is not free. It is not too expensive. It is priceless."

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