The U.S. government will send only one-quarter as many people to the huge international AIDS conference starting Sunday in Bangkok as it sent to the last one in Barcelona.
The decision to cut attendance, which comes as the Bush administration is rolling out its five-year, $15 billion global AIDS treatment plan, was reached long after many government scientists had made plans to attend the conference, which is held every two years. Dozens of scientific presentations were withdrawn, about 50 will be published only as summaries and not presented publicly, and dozens of meetings -- many designed to train Third World AIDS researchers and foster international collaboration -- were canceled.
The move, which officials say is to save money, is interpreted by many AIDS experts as payback for the heckling of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson at the last AIDS conference and further evidence of a "go-it-alone" attitude in the administration's global AIDS program....
The decision to limit U.S. participation in the Bangkok conference is sending a message the rest of the AIDS world will not miss, said a senior CDC official who declined to be identified.
"It's a perception from the rest of the world that the U.S. wants to be engaged, but the U.S. wants to call the shots," the official said.
The decision has caused consternation at the CDC and the NIH and among AIDS scientists outside the government whose work is funded by those agencies. Almost nobody was willing to speak on the record because of fears of retaliation.
"What can I say? I can't say anything," an anguished NIH researcher said.
Calling the decision "inappropriate and misguided," one AIDS scientist said that for the NIH staff "it is quite demoralizing to get an abstract accepted in the field of your choice, and then not be able to present your findings because you're not allowed to go the meeting."
Jack Whitescarver, director of the NIH Office of AIDS Research, declined to be interviewed. The NIH released details of the cutbacks only in response to a Freedom of Information Act request....
Ronald O. Valdiserri, the epidemiologist leading the CDC's delegation, said 46 poster presentations and one lecture were withdrawn. Twenty-nine lectures will be delivered, although in many cases not by the primary investigator. Of the 148 CDC posters still on the schedule, 40 will be published only as summaries in the abstract book and not displayed. A satellite symposium on the use of rapid HIV tests was also canceled.
HHS officials tried to cancel a $250,000 CDC grant to the conference for scholarships for Third World AIDS researchers, said a person familiar with agency. When told the money could not be reclaimed, Thompson's office stipulated it go only to scientists in the countries getting aid under the PEPFAR program.
The NIH, which in the past gave grants to AIDS conferences, is not this year because "it chose not to," said Pierce, Thompson's spokesman.
A CDC official labeled as "bull" the HHS explanation that the cutbacks were primarily to save money.
"This is clearly the result of the booing of Secretary Thompson in Barcelona, which he took quite personally," this person said.
Two years ago, about 30 activists heckled the secretary with shouts of "Shame, shame!" "No more lies" and "Lies, lies!" -- making his 15-minute speech inaudible. Neither of the two speakers who followed -- Richard G.A. Feachem, director of the Global Fund, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the World Health Organization -- came to Thompson's defense or criticized the protesters.
Later that day, some of the hecklers met with Thompson, told him of their concerns and urged him not to take the catcalls personally. Several insiders said, however, that some people high in the HHS viewed the jeering as a serious affront to civility, U.S. generosity and the Bush administration.
Within weeks of the conference's end, word circulated that HHS participation might be different the next time.
Well, then. That'll teach 'em.