PBS Frontline: The Age of AIDS

Renata Simone
Senior Producer and Reporter
Wednesday, May 31, 2006; 11:00 AM

Senior producer and reporter Renata Simone was online Wednesday, May 31, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the PBS Frontline film, "The Age of AIDS," which examines why we have been unable to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Since the virus emerged in Los Angeles in 1981, 70 million have been infected and 30 million have died. "The Age of AIDS" features prominent scientists, politicians, activists and others struggling to slow the spread of a disease that will infect an estimated 50 million more over the next decade and looks back at the stigma and controversy that surrounded HIV/AIDS when it emerged in the 1980s. Which countries are hardest hit? What can be done to contain this deadly epidemic?

PBS Frontline's "The Age of AIDS" will air Tuesday, May 30, and Wednesday, May 31 at 9 p.m. ET ( check local listings ).

The transcript follows.


Philadelphia, Pa.: I recall an early AIDS researcher mentioning in the early 1980s that AIDS were prevalent in the animal kingdom and he mentioned that it probably was spread by a human having sex with an animal. Until recently, I thought he was kidding, but now I am beginning to wonder, as I read of newly published research into the history of AIDS: might that possibly indeed be how AIDS was transformed to humans?

Renata Simone: From the beginning the origins of AIDS has been subject to speculations - often wild speculations and conspiracy theories. But as we report in the documentary, and more extensively on the Web site, genetic research has pinpointed the exact animal reservoir and the habitat of those chimpanzees in southeastern Cameroon. Experts believe that the most likely blood to blood contact through which the simian virus first infected people was in the practice of killing chimpanzees for food. Chimpanzees have been a traditional food source for people in this area. Frontline Web site


Toronto, Canada: Very interesting overview of the history. Could you briefly go over how long it took from concept to production and any hurdles that had to be overcome to produce this excellent episode(s)?

Renata Simone: I spent two years writing the treatments and refining the concept. I then spent another two years fundraising for the project, and we began production in September of 2004. The biggest hurdles were the editorial choices around what to include and what to leave out of such a complex story.


Melbourne, Fla.: I am a community educator on HIV. In my opinion the fight needs to begin in our schools. I feel that schools and colleges need to discuss sex and HIV more freely. Our society views sex as an unspeakable topic which helps HIV prevail. Would you agree?

Renata Simone: I think of Mervyn Silverman's comment that trying to do prevention education with out talking about sex is like trying to prevent drunk driving without talking about booze or cars.


Miami, Fla.: Given the expectedly forthcoming recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that HIV tests become part of the average American's routine medical exam, how critical was the FDA's recent approval of Chembio's rapid HIV/AIDS tests, which are 99.9% specific and 99.85% sensitive, and take about 15 minutes to produce results?

Renata Simone: The accuracy of the test is crucial, but no less important would be a guarantee of confidentiality for those who want it.


New York, N.Y.: What causes HIV to become AIDS?

Renata Simone: As we present in detail on our Web site, the AIDS virus targets the most important cell in the immune system. This particular cell, the CD-4 T lymphocyte is the overall control of the immune response. As the virus destroys those cells over time, a person's immune system becomes less and less able to fight off infections. Some of those infections respond to treatment but some of these "opportunistic infections" are life threatening. AIDS is the name given to specific opportunistic infections. If a person develops those infections they are diagnosed with AIDS. Frontline Web site


Washington, D.C.: Are you positively completely sure that you cannot catch the virus by working with someone who has AIDS...even though they cough around you and you are using the same computer and telephone??

Renata Simone: It has been shown through scientific research from the beginning that HIV is not an airborne virus. Tests have also shown that exposed to air the virus dies within twenty minutes. It is killed by soap and water, and is not transmitted by casual contact. It is understandable to be fearful of the disease, but scientists have provided good clear answers to your question.


Baltimore, Md.: Hello Ms. Simone,

Thank you for your excellent Frontline program, The Age of Aids. Since the origins of HIV/AIDS are contentious, did you consider including the theory of the iatrogenic origin of HIV/AIDS in your program, i.e. that human trials of vaccines such as the oral polio vaccine that may have been grown on chimpanzee kidneys by Hilary Koprowski's group in Africa in the 1950's, may have been the origin of HIV/AIDS (as detailed in Edward Hooper's phenomenal book, The River)? I would have appreciated more discussion on the origins of HIV/AIDS in The Age of Aids, since it's very mysterious, relevant, and no one has yet been able to come up with the answer yet.

Renata Simone: We interviewed Beatrice Hahn, the scientist who led the team who made the most recent discoveries on the origins of the virus. Her transcript is on the Web site, with a link to her most recent publication. There is also an essay which puts Hooper's OPV theory in context. Frontline Web site


Philadelphia, Pa.: I'm concerned that the black church has not been involved in this issue like it took the lead in the Civil Rights era. Will you be dealing with this in the last episode?

Renata Simone: You are right, this was and is one of the most important issues in the fight against the epidemic, particularly in the U.S. We do cover this issue - but unfortunately with only four hours to cover the entire history of the pandemic, we do not spend as much time on it as I would have liked. Phill Wilson, the Executive Director of the Black AIDS Institute has been a leader on this subject for many years. His interview along with our interview with Pernessa Seele, the founding director of The Balm in Gilead can be found on our Web site. We could have done a whole hour on this fascinating part of the story.


Seattle, Wash.: are pharmaceutical companies coming around when it comes to providing generic ARV's, which are as effective yet less expensive, and consequently NGO's abroad can afford more, especially those who are recipients of The Global Funding?

Renata Simone: At the insistence of activists around the world, generic versions of the expensive ARV's have become more widely available. But the battle is far from over because experts tell us that within five years 50 percent of the people on any given regiment of treatment become resistant and need to take a different combination of drugs. So the goal would be for generic (cheaper) versions of all 21 treatments to be widely available.


Oakland, Calif.: I work for a national Native American AIDS prevention center and I've found that HIV is essentially a blood disease. I find that while I can teach about how the biology of the disease works, overcoming the stigma of the disease is the greatest barrier to understanding or wanting to understand the transmission and prevention of HIV; this is true for tribes and non-native people. Do you find this to be true also?

Thanks so much for bringing the discussion of HIV prevention and AIDS to the national and global level.

Renata Simone: When we looked back over the 25 year history of the epidemic we started to see repeated patterns. And when we traveled to countries around the world we saw those same patterns everywhere : when AIDS enters a community the first response is often denial followed by stigma and discrimination. Communities and nations that were able to move past that were successful. But in too many places denial and stigma persist, which allows the virus to spread deeper into the community.


Flint, Mich.: My impression of the battle against AIDS is that it has been pretty much a catastrophe of ideology and ego trumping sound science and social policy. Last night's info regarding credit for discover of the virus, the shutting down of WHO's anti-AIDS effort, and Jesse Helms's and Ronald Reagan's speeches seems to bear out that impression. Do you find evidence for a less pessimistic view of efforts against the disease? (Will we see these in tonight's second episode?)

Renata Simone: I think you've correctly identified some of the most powerful forces at play in this epidemic. The battle continues in tonight's episode and on the frontlines around the world.


New York, N.Y.: Have you included in the program anything about the way they treat AIDS in Brazil?

I heard something about Brazil's methods and policies as being the "model for the rest of the world"

Renata Simone: Yes. Watch tonight's episode on PBS at 9. Check local listings.


Somerville, Mass.: Where do we go from here? Is it too late?

Renata Simone: Prevention and treatment. But mostly prevention.


washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.


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