New stars at annual AIDS conference are ordinary folks

MEXICO CITY — When Regina Molokomme's father, stepmother and brother died of AIDS, those setbacks propelled the South African educator out of her comfortable situation and into a life dedicated to helping others cope with the disease.

Molokomme's journey to break her country's denial of the epidemic led her through a spiritual awakening, into Sanerela+ — the South African Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV or AIDS — and now to the 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. Sanerela+ is one of the 25 community-based organizations honored with Red Ribbon Awards this year for their work in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Whereas scientists and medical researchers once were the rock stars of the HIV/AIDS fraternity, another collection of folks has taken their place as leading lights of the Mexico City conference.

Among the newest stars are people living with HIV or AIDS, advocates pushing for prevention and treatment, activists seeking more drug therapy and those hoping to end the discrimination, stigma and homophobia that the epidemic has prompted.

The reason is clear: A cure or a vaccination still lies in the future, and these activists deal with challenges in the present.

At the end of last year, an estimated 33 million people worldwide were living with HIV — 22 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa — and an estimated 2.7 million had been newly infected in 2007.

There is good news in the AIDS effort.

"For the first time, fewer people are dying of AIDS and fewer people are becoming infected," said Peter Piot, the executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

There's bad news, too. The global goal to provide health care to all those with HIV/AIDS hasn't yet been reached. "We are not on course to meet universal access targets," said Pedro Cahn, the president of the International AIDS Society and one of the organizers of the conference. "It's time for nations to live up to their commitments."

In addition, 86 countries still criminalize sex between consenting men while other communities deny jobs or education to those with HIV/AIDS.

At the conference's opening ceremony Sunday evening, attended by luminaries in the effort against HIV/AIDS as well as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the U.N. Development Program honored the 25 groups helping communities with the disease, including Sanerela+.

Although South Africa has 5.7 million people living with HIV/AIDS, Molokomme never thought that it could hit her close-knit, educated family. Then her father, a retiree, started losing weight. He died in 2002. The next year, her stepmother died of AIDS and in 2004, her brother.

"I left my life," Molokomme said. Life as she knew it also left her. She found that she no longer could work as an educator. Even as her brother and sister denied that the disease had caused the deaths, she underwent a spiritual awakening and took a job with Sanerela+.

"I join prayer meetings. I drive around to communities, to marginalized areas to give the support we can," she said, adding that she's constantly fighting "silence, shame, denial, discrimination, inaction and misaction."

Groups such as the one she works with are on the march against HIV/AIDS.

"We realize now that the world is going to be living with AIDS for the next generation even if we find a vaccine in five to 15 years," said Jeffrey O'Malley, the director of the HIV/AIDS Group in the U.N. Development Program.

The U.N. program, which has a mandate to fight poverty, discrimination, human rights abuses and other social issues, considers AIDS a priority since in some hard-hit countries it's reduced life expectancy, increased economic burdens on the health-care system and cut into economic development.

"Five people are being infected for every two who get treatment," O'Malley said. "We must be focusing on prevention much more."

Strengthening Diversity, a Mexican organization that also was honored with a Red Ribbon Award, has been working for two years to improve the lives of the transgender population and sex workers, who as recently as the past decade were arrested and treated to electric shocks in wet cells.

Jessica Bear and Raquel Torres form the core of the support group against discrimination of transgenders, who often are thrown out of their families, denied work unless they dress as their birth genders and end up as sex workers, exposed to violence and to HIV/AIDS.

"One time in a workshop they told us, 'Thank you for coming, because we feel we are worth less than nothing,' " Bear said.

Some 23,000 scientists, doctors, researchers, activists and government, private-sector and grass-roots representatives from around the world are attending the five-day meeting at Mexico City's Centro Banamex, a huge conference complex on the western edge of the metropolis.

On the scientific front, more than 5,000 abstracts are being presented, culled from almost 11,000 submissions. A Global Village showcases activist efforts such as Hairdressers Against AIDS, a L'Oreal and UNESCO partnership to have stylists spread the word to their clients about preventing AIDS.

The conference itself is an effort to end stigmas.

On Tuesday, Jorge Saavedra, Mexico's director of the anti-AIDS program Censida, gave the first plenary address ever at these conferences on the topic of men having sex with men.

"We have failed to bring down the incidence of HIV in men having sex with men because, with a few exceptions, we haven't tried," Saavedra said.

(Bussey is a reporter for The Miami Herald.)