More than 23,000 delegates – researchers, activists, advocates and policy makers – from nearly 200 countries came to the Washington Convention Center on Sunday for the kickoff of the International AIDS Conference, saying they want to work together to assess what the future of HIV and AIDS might hold.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius used the event to announce that the government has more than 150 antiretroviral drugs available through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or Pepfar, a globally funded plan begun under President George W. Bush.
“We’ve come together this week because we know that now is not the time for easing up, slowing down or shifting focus,” said Sebelius at the conference’s opening ceremony Sunday night. “If we are going to reach our ultimate goal of an AIDS-free generation, we must all challenge ourselves to do more – to reach even more people, to make programs even more effective and accountable, to push the boundaries of science even further.”
Sebelius also announced new collaborations for American HIV care with Walgreens pharmacy; with Medscape, an online continuing education program for American clinicians; and with the MAC AIDS Fund, a charity run by MAC Cosmetics, to launch a mobile texting pilot program that assists with disease management and to join with Pepfar on a project to focus on international lessons applicable to the U.S. fight. Further, she said the department has joined forces with the eight largest AIDS drug companies to consolidate an application form that would make it easier for patients to access critical AIDS medications.
But ending the epidemic isn’t easy and the optimism shouldn’t obscure that, said Ambassador Mark Dybul, who led Pepfar under the Bush administration.
“Ending the epidemic is not eradicating HIV – that will come when science produces a cure and vaccine,” he said. “Ending the epidemic means driving new infections down to very low levels that are even lower than ever-decreasing deaths as we achieve an AIDS-free generation.”
Diane Havlir, U.S. co-chairwoman of AIDS 2012 and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who also spoke at the opening ceremony Sunday night, urged the group to continue to fight toward eradication.
“Our big idea, which many didn’t think was on the horizon five years ago, is that we can start to end AIDS,” Havlir said. “To some, this may seem impossible. I hope they are wrong, but what I do know is that if we do not try, there will be millions of new infections – lives will be changed forever. The death toll will continue to climb above 30 million.”
Havlir specifically called on policy makers to recognize the importance of continued action.
“My message to policy makers around the world watching us here in DC is this: Invest in science, invest in the epidemic. You will save lives.”
The global pandemic has killed 30 million worldwide over three decades, including 600,000 Americans. At this week’s conference, attendees expect to hear of new breakthroughs in research and new efforts by governments and organizations to reduce the spread of HIV and treat those who have it.
Lydie Marc, an HIV health educator from Atlanta, said the intensity of the conference is what makes it appealing. “I’m really excited,” she said, clutching her thick program of sessions. “Looking at this big book, I expect there’s going to be a lot going on.”
The week is packed with symposiums, workshops, specialized committees and youth programs and a presentation of more than 3,600 scientific abstracts. Other speakers expected this week include Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, philanthropist Bill Gates, and former President Bill Clinton.
For Joy Crawford from Jamaica, director of programs and training at Eve for Life, a group that supports women and children living with HIV, the conference is a chance to network, stay informed about trends and share best practices. She’s attended three international AIDS conferences, but this time, she’s brought young teen mothers and plans to screen a film about a program for young HIV-positive and HIV-negative teens and their families.
Crawford hopes the conference will make a difference, especially given that it’s in a first-world country this time around.
“At the end of it all, I hope we would be able to have gotten value for money,” she said. “So often we have the conferences and at the end of the day there’s no real serious impact in regionals and at the community level. I’m hoping that we can see in the next two years some real serious monitoring and evaluation of the impact of the conference at the community level.”
For Jaime Ruiz-Perez, director of program services at the Sharing Community in Yonkers, N.Y., who attended the conference the last time it was in the United States in 1990, this is a chance to hear from the global community and to glean success stories and challenges about HIV and AIDS.
He said much has changed since the last time he was at the International AIDS Conference. For one, it’s more international. But there’s more.
“Eighteen years ago, it was more an advocacy type of message – more of a continued struggle with government to actually accept these interventions and accept these services,” said Ruiz-Perez. “It was more of a rally-type of feeling than now. Now it’s more like ’what can we do better.’”
But despite the positive changes that have occurred in the past two decades, Ruiz-Perez acknowledged that it’s easy to lose sight of the original goal, and said some service providers might now look at the ongoing problem of tackling HIV and AIDS as a means to a paycheck.
“There’s some talk now because of cuts that maybe we need to go back to the rallying and advocacy parts because we don’t want to lose perspective,” he said. “It’s not a paycheck. These are people’s lives.”