July 28, 2012
The 19th International AIDS Conference (or “IAC”) ended on Friday, after a closing speech by President Bill Clinton. That brought to a close a week in which almost 25,000 participants attended daily “plenary” speeches in a huge hall, plus hundreds of smaller talks and presentations, and saw thousands of posters on aspects of HIV prevention, care, and treatment, from almost every angle imaginable.
The participants at IAC included people most Americans might expect would work on this issue, such as doctors, nurses, and scientists, as well as politicians, program planners, donor agencies, and celebrities, who visited thousands of AIDS displays by all types, and even enjoyed musical and dance performances. People came from 90 countries around the world, and from all aspects of American society as well.
The participants also involveda very large number of AIDS activists, including “LGTB”, or Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender people, who play a prominent part in HIV/AIDS meetings and activities. Also present were commercial sex workers and intravenous drug users, who are at high risk for HIV/AIDS. In the exhibition halls were drug companies who are often the targets of protests by many AIDS activists.
For me, personally, I met a large number of colleagues who work on HIV/AIDS, as well as some of their kids, who came to volunteer, and even a former US Ambassador and his wife who volunteered at IAC. I also met workers at the convention center, African Americans from Washington, DC, where there is a mini-AIDS epidemic. We talked about the need for HIV testing, to learn their status and to be HIV-free.
So it was a very diverse cross-section of people, and also an amazing learning environment for a week. How can we convey to you even a brief sense of what the meeting was about, and what we learned? Let’s take a look at some of the headlines and the people that made them (or at least presented them).
What does HIV/AIDS mean to America, Americans, and people from other parts of the world? It’s hard to summarize. What do most of us know about HIV/AIDS? That there is a virus (HIV) that destroys the immune system, leading to AIDS. There is still no vaccine, and no cure. For now, we prevent, provide care for, and treat it. There are 8 million people on treatment, called “ART,” and 7 million who need it.
Money is a big part of every discussion about HIV/AIDS. The cost of 8 million people on treatment, and everything else that is being done, is a huge figure, about $17 billion per year. But estimates of the total needed range another $7 billion per year, for a total of $24 billion, in order to “turn the tide” on AIDS.
What do “we” (meaning, Americans, the world, people infected with HIV (or PLHIV), and also children orphaned by AIDS) get for $17 billion a year? We get a range of drugs that PLHIV, including babies born with HIV, have to take every day for the rest of their life, in order to protect their immune systems. We get a vast array of programs to prevent HIV infection, and to care for and support those affected by it.
There are always discussions about morality when we talk about HIV/AIDS, including everything from the most conservative faith-based groups that oppose condom promotion, and condemn homosexual behavior, to the churches and congregants who visit PLHIV in their homes and provide hospice care. Sometimes the same churches operate on “both sides” of HIV/AIDS, showing compassion for PLHIV.
Death is always a main topic at AIDS meetings. Without access to life-prolonging treatment, PLHIV will eventually progress from asymptomatic, to symptomatic, to “full-blown” AIDS. We’ve all seen images of what AIDS does to its victims – the weak, gaunt figures, who in the past were often cast out of societies. The good news at this IAC is that far more PLHIV receive ART, so far fewer people are dying now of AIDS. Stigma (discrimination against PLHIV) is decreasing in Africa, but still persists in some parts of the world.
MOMS – AND KIDS
Women and kids were a big topic at the IAC, and they should be. HIV prevention and ART for moms protects them and their babies from infection with HIV. There is huge progress on getting adults on ART, but less in getting babies and kids onto ART early enough to save their lives. So, more needs to be done. Along with ART for moms and babies, the world needs to care for and support millions of AIDS orphans. Imagine the sheer numbers of AIDS orphans – estimatedat17 million – and imagine what their life would be like without our support. Imagine what life would be for your kids if they became orphans.