As you may know from reading my previous blog entry, Catherine Hart and I attended the XIX (19th) International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. last week. We were there to do an oral presentation on our poster that was made from our abstract entitled ”First Federal Support for Community Based Syringe Exchange Program: a Panel Presentation by SAMHSA Grantees.” This abstract was picked as one of 40 from 11,715 abstracts entered. The presentation was well received and we were very appreciative of the honor of being chosen to make it.
Overall the conference was a great experience and I was taken with how much has changed since the last conference was held in the United States in San Francisco in 1990. The reason it has been so long is because HIV-positive individuals were barred from entering the United States. Congress voted to lift the ban in 2010, and D.C. was promptly chosen as the host city for this year’s conference. The travel ban was still in force for HIV-positive sex workers, which was one of the issues that were protested.
Regardless of the protests, more than 23,000 people from 183 countries attended the weeklong conference. Speakers included Hillary Clinton, who declared that gender equity is crucial to protecting women. “Women need and deserve a voice in the decisions that effect their lives,” Clinton said, as she set a goal “for a generation that is free of AIDS.” Elton John, who’s AIDS foundation has raised more than $275 million in support of fighting AIDS worldwide said, “Maybe you think I’m naïve,” he said at the conference. “Maybe you think I’m off my rocker. Here I am telling an audience of 7,000 global health experts that you can end AIDS with love.” On a panel discussion Bill Gates said a vaccine would be the ultimate tool and his foundation has invested $10 billion in finding one. In a panel discussion on the global AIDS epidemic and the US Congress, several members of Congress included Marco Rubio who despite his general opposition to government spending is amenable to the U.S. confronting HIV/AIDS and explained that foreign aid represents about 1/2 percent of the U.S. budget and would not significantly reduce the deficit if taken away. The session was heavily protested by people carrying red umbrellas and chanting to repeal the portion of PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) requiring organizations that receive money to have policies against prostitution. Despite Secretary Clinton’s assertion that it wouldn’t be an AIDS conference without a little protesting, protestors were disruptive, making it difficult for presenters to give their talks and attendees to follow what they were trying to say. The overall theme of what the scientific presenters discussed was treatment as prevention. Current drugs being used to treat AIDS significantly reduce viral load, making it less likely the virus is passed on. Introducing these drugs at an earlier stage in detection has shown to increase their efficacy.
And finally, I really enjoyed the Global Village which was open to the general public where people and organizations from around the world held nearly 300 activities and events. Although people were entertaining and selling things it was an interesting venue for an exchange of ideas which allowed people from around the world to share how they have dealt with the crisis. Although Catherine and I attended the AIDS conference to share what we had done with our syringe exchange program, it was an enriching experience and we came away with new ideas and information to help us confront the challenges that lie ahead.