People are dying because public health policy has fallen victim to “the war of ideology over science,” keynote speaker Geeta Rao Gupta, Ph.D., said at the annual AIDS Science Day at the School of Public Health in April. A health policy based on ideology rather than research “is not just wrong,” she said, “it is fatal.”

Gupta, president of the International Center for Research on Women, said social change arising from globalization has pushed societies “backwards to fundamental ideals and primary cultures, to hold on to what is seemingly sacred.” The reversion to fundamentalism typically limits women’s mobility and sexual and reproductive autonomy, she said.

The “most stunning examples” of ideology-based policy have come from the United States, she said, which has, at United Nations conferences, promoted abstinence as the only sure way to prevent sexual transmission of hiv and called for the deletion of “condom use” from a list of strategies to prevent infection. Such “ideological posturing,” said Gupta, “costs lives, tens of millions of lives.”

Policy based on research should include cultural analysis, said Gupta. For instance, women’s ability to protect themselves from hiv is limited by societal rules governing how women (and men) should behave. If an AIDS vaccine is developed, some societies will regard getting vaccinated as an admission of promiscuity.

“We just presume that once you have the solution, it’s a good solution,” said Gupta, adding: “Biomedical interventions are not gender-neutral.”

During the day of panels and poster sessions, scientists, anthropologists, social workers, faculty and students discussed an array of issues related to HIV/AIDS, including prevention and care in international settings, interventions to stop the spread of the disease and the implications of race, gender and poverty.