From the early days of the HIV epidemic, the unique nature of the International AIDS Conference and its power to mobilize governments, scientists and the international media, while bringing hope and support to people living with HIV, has played a crucial role in shaping the course of HIV and AIDS.
Looking back, the International AIDS Conferences are signposts in the history of the epidemic, showing us not only where we went, but where we should have gone. Since the very first International AIDS Conference in Atlanta in 1985, when the scientists and public health officials grappling with how to respond to the emerging HIV epidemic gathered together to present an overview of knowledge about the disease, the conference has provided the platform needed to effectively respond to the pressing scientific, economic, social and political contexts of the day.
Nobody who works in HIV will forget the passionate activism of the early conferences; Kenneth Kaunda’s speech in 1989, when he became the first African leader to talk openly about AIDS and his own family; or the electric atmosphere during AIDS 1996 as clinical researchers presented the remarkable and long-awaited results of combination antiretroviral therapy.
For me and my African colleagues working in the response to HIV, AIDS 2000, held in Durban, South Africa, still carries the uttermost significance, as the game-changer in the continent’s response to the epidemic. In Durban, while the South African health minister continued to deny that HIV was the virus that caused AIDS, scientists hit back with the Durban Declaration, a statement signed by over 5,000 physicians and scientists and affirming that HIV is the cause of AIDS. An unprecedented media presence broadcast the staggering impact of the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa to a world that had yet to fully grasp or respond to the scope of the region’s problem, and the conference started the ball rolling for access to ARVs in Africa.
Over the years, organizers of the International AIDS Conference have also collaborated with smaller, regional conferences, sharing best practices and linking these regional conferences with one another and with the international AIDS conferences. AIDS 2012 is currently collaborating with the 16th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA 2011), which will run from December 4th to 8th in Ethiopia under the theme, Own, Scale-Up and Sustain.
On World AIDS Day 2011, four days before ICASA 2011 will bring us up to date information on the HIV epidemic’s successes and challenges in the African region, and with just under eight months until the next International AIDS Conference, AIDS 2012 opens in Washington D.C. in July 2012, I urge all leaders to seize the historical potential of the International AIDS Conference and to add your voice to AIDS 2012’s urgent call to action: ensuring that each and every stakeholder in the HIV and AIDS response steps up and acknowledges their role in ending the epidemic. The theme of AIDS 2012, Turning the Tide Together reiterates the fact that if all stakeholders step up and take responsibility we can overcome this epidemic.
At AIDS 2012, there is no doubt that science will give us reasons to celebrate, particularly looking back on how far we have come since the early days in terms of scientific knowledge. However, these breakthroughs are worth little if economic and political engagement are lacking.
In the current economic climate, there are people, groups and governments who argue that there is just no way that we can step up funding for HIV prevention, treatment and care.
I would argue that there is always a way.
From the possibility of a financial transaction tax (FTT) - a system of taxation which could generate billions of dollars for international development from a fairer taxation of the financial sector- to creative public-private partnerships, to better and more efficient use of available funding, there are clear ways that money can be generated and directed into HIV.
AIDS 2012 will not only be an opportunity to showcase impressive new scientific research which could theoretically help us achieve zero new infections, it will be the platform needed to discuss the innovative economics needed to make this happen, and to convince anyone who doubts that HIV should be a financial priority of its uttermost importance.
When I look back on the last 18 International AIDS Conferences, I see something hopeful which came out of each one, whether it be a political or economic commitment, a scientific discovery or a speech made by someone living with HIV.
I hope that when I look back on AIDS 2012, I remember it for all of these reasons: as the International AIDS Conference when science, activism, politics and economics aligned to truly signpost the way to no new infections.