All but seven of the states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS were located in the south REUTERS

Prominent HIV/AIDS researchers kicked off the annual International AIDS Society conference in Rome by hailing crucial breakthroughs in AIDS treatment, but tempered their enthusiasm with a call to more evenly distribute access to treatment.

The conference comes as a scientific concensus is building that the focus of AIDS treatment must shift to preventing the epidemic's spread by beginning treatment early, something that has been shown to both reduce mortality rates for HIV positive people and to drastically reduce the chances of the disease being transmitted.

We are at a scientific watershed in the global AIDS response, IAS 2011 international chair and International AIDS Society president Elly Katabira said. We have witnessed two years of significant biomedical advances, the likes of which we have not seen since the antiretroviral breakthroughs of the mid 1990s.

A study released Monday further vindicated the move towards preventative treatment, finding after analyzing 1,763 couples in Africa, Asia, South America and the United States that people who received antiretroviral drugs soon after being diagnosed saw their chances of infecting their partner plummet by 96 percent.

While those findings are encouraging, the next step is to adjust public policy to ensure greater access to treatment. Executive Director Michel Sidibé pointed to wide gulfs in the availability of AIDS treatment between different populations and countries and called for more research into medicine that would be cheaper to produce.

We have to remember that history will judge us not by our scientific breakthroughs, but how we apply them, said Sidibé.

The medical community's understanding of HIV/AIDS patterns has been rapidly evolving, not only through the move towards emphasizinig preventative treatment. A recent study upended popular assumptions about which U.S. populations are most susceptible to the virus by finding that factors such as poverty and lack of education, rather than sexual orientation, were driving the disease south.