Turning the Tide Together – The International AIDS Conference

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Turning the Tide Together – The International AIDS Conference

Every two years, the international HIV community comes together to hold the International AIDS Conference.  For the first time in 22 years, the conference was held in the United States; the event was held at the Washington DC convention center.  This follows the lifting of the United States travel and immigration ban on HIV-positive individuals from entering the U.S. 


According to the conference conveners, AIDS 2012 drew nearly 24,000 participants from 183 countries. The week-long program featured 491 sessions covering science, public policies, trainings, best practices, leadership skills, stories in the field, and more. 


The conference was supported by almost 1,000 volunteers from all over the United States and other countries. The amount of information and activities occurring was almost mind-boggling.  Just shifting through the agenda to select sessions and events to participate in took careful planning.  On top of the formal conference, countless receptions, marches, demonstrations, presentations in the Global Village and other unofficial activities were buzzing all around the conference itself.  The energy at the conference could be described as “electric.”


If there was one overall theme to many of the speeches and presentations at this year’s conference, it was that the science and medical technology is now available to end the HIV epidemic – what is needed is the willpower and resources devoted to ending the scourge of HIV.


Speaker after speaker acknowledged that the treatments and research are available that show us that if we can get everyone into treatment and undetectable, not only will the quality of life of persons living with HIV/AIDS dramatically improve, but the number of new infections could be almost completely eliminated.  The reality is, however, that only a small percentage of those who are infected are on treatment across the globe. The challenge for all of us is how to get these treatments and research to everyone who needs it.


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started her energetic speech by saying (after acknowledging people protesting) “Part of the reason we’ve come as far as we have is because so many people all over the world have not been satisfied that we have done enough. And I am here to set a goal for a generation that is free of AIDS.”  She also very appropriately reminded us of how far we have come.  Her most memorable part of the speech was:


But I want to take a step back and think how far we have come since the last time this conference was held in the United States. It was in 1990 in San Francisco. Dr. Eric Goosby, who is now our Global AIDS Ambassador, ran a triage center there for all the HIV-positive people who became sick during the conference. They set up IV drug drips to rehydrate patients. They gave antibiotics to people with AIDS-related pneumonia. Many had to be hospitalized and a few died.


She talked about the United State’s commitment to the global fight for HIV, stating that  “On treatment as prevention, the United States has added funding for nearly 600,000 more people since September, which means we are reaching nearly 4.5 million people now and closing in on our national goal of 6 million by the end of next year. That is our contribution to the global effort to reach universal coverage.”  She also announced $80 million more for PEPFAR.  It should be noted that some international AIDS advocates have been highly critical of the U.S. commitment to the global AIDS efforts, as several cuts have been proposed in the past.


Elton John gave a riveting and very personal speech about how to end the AIDS epidemic.  He started by talking about his own youthful experiences with drugs, alcohol and risky sex in the 1980s. 


He told the audience:  “I should be dead”, but was fortunate to never have contracted HIV.  What is needed to end the epidemic?  “We need more humanity and more love if we are going to end AIDS.  If you want to end the AIDS epidemic in America, then show compassion for those who cannot afford treatment and are on a waiting list to receive it.  If this country wanted to end new infections at home, it could do so in a heartbeat.”


He went on to talk about how policies across the globe that stigmatize people living with HIV are the very drivers of the epidemic, including criminalization and homophobia.


These are but a few of the speakers that also included Bill Gates, DC Mayor Gray and former President Bill Clinton, not to mention countless researchers and leaders from other nations. 


Perhaps the most riveting part of the conference outside of these two presenters was something totally outside of the conference itself:  A large protest from the convention center to the White House that took place on Tuesday, July 24.


In sweltering 100+ degree heat, several thousand individuals marched on a global theme of “We Can End AIDS”.  The march split up into a series of smaller themes, each marching a separate route and then converging together at the White House.  These themes were: a Robin Hood Tax; fighting corporate greed/pharmaceutical pricing; sound public policies for HIV/AIDS (lifting ban on syringe exchange and domestic HIV funding); human rights and harm reduction; and access to full women’s health care including reproductive rights.  The march was well organized and extremely well attended.  As would be entirely expected of an AIDS protest in DC, several protesters closed the event by getting themselves arrested.


For more information on the conference, including information on presentations and abstracts, webcasts to some speeches and more, you may go to: www.aids2012.org