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24 July 2012

AIDS 2012: Turning the Tide Together

The XIX International AIDS Conference is taking place in Washington D.C. from 22-27 July 2012, bringing together more than 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries. This biennial conference provides a unique forum for the interaction of science, community and leadership, with the goal of sharing the latest research findings, best practices and lessons learned in order to strengthen the global response to the epidemic and advance HIV prevention, treatment, care, research and human rights. The conference is organized by the International AIDS Society (IAS), in partnership with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the Black AIDS Institute, Sidaction and the District of Columbia Department of Health, among many others. The organizing partners are a varied mix of international organizations and civil society, while the sponsors come from both the private and public sectors.

The objectives of AIDS 2012 are manifold. Among other goals, the conference seeks to bring together the world’s scientific experts to catalyze and advance scientific knowledge about HIV, present the most recent research findings, and promote and enhance scientific collaborations around the world. It also aims to engage key, new and non-traditional stakeholders throughout the world especially those most affected by the HIV and AIDS response, including women and girls, men who have sex with men, transgender individuals, sex workers, young people, people who use drugs and people involved in prevention or care programmes targeting the incarcerated.

On 10 July 2012, the IAS published the Washington D.C. Declaration, calling for renewed global urgency to turn the tide on HIV and end the AIDS epidemic. The declaration will serve as the official declaration of the XIX International AIDS Conference. It proposes a 9-point action plan to dramatically curb new HIV infections and improve the health of millions of people living with the HIV/AIDS, while the search for a cure continues.

In their welcome note, Elly Katabira and Diane Havlir (co-chairs of the conference) stated their certainty that AIDS 2012 will “play a key role in shaping international responses to this devastating epidemic.” The year 2012 marks the first time in more than 20 years that the United States plays host to the world’s largest conference on HIV/AIDS. In light of this, Katabira and Havlir are working with local partners to “make sure that the conference has a deep and lasting impact in [the] host city and country” and that it “further strengthens the U.S. role in global AIDS initiatives, re-energizes the response to the U.S. domestic epidemic, and focuses attention on the particularly devastating impact HIV is having in Washington, D.C., and in racial and ethnic minority communities across the U.S.”

Also welcoming the participants, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director at UNAIDS, underlined that ending AIDS is possible. He referred to progress made so far, noting for example that more people are currently on treatment than people who need treatment, that AIDS-related deaths are declining and that the trajectory of new infections has been broken. “We know how to get to zero. All that can stop us now is indecision and lack of courage,” Mr. Sidibé emphasized. In anticipation of the XIX International AIDS Conference, UNAIDS released a report entitled Together We Will End AIDS. The report provides the latest data on the number of new HIV infections, people receiving antiretroviral treatment, AIDS-related deaths and HIV among children. It also highlights new scientific opportunities and social progress, and gives an overview of international and domestic HIV investments. For more information, please see UNAIDS: Together We Will End AIDS.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the audience through a video message, reiterating the targets set by the UN General Assembly in 2011: to cut new infections by half, to expand treatment to 15 million people, and to ensure that no child is born with HIV, and called upon participants to “help turn the tide.”

In the opening plenary session of the conference, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled four new public-private initiatives aimed at removing barriers that cause some living with HIV/AIDS within the United States to fall out of care. Just ahead of Sebelius’ speech, a group of over 2,000 HIV/AIDS activists marched through downtown Washington D.C. urging the Obama administration to do more to combat the domestic epidemic. President Obama is scheduled to address the AIDS conference later this week through a video message, but the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and some HIV/AIDS activists have criticized him for not attending the conference in person. In a similar vein, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s speech on 23 July was upstaged by protestors demanding more D.C. housing for residents infected by HIV.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also spoke on 23 July, announced that the United States is currently preparing a blueprint of goals and objectives to confront the global AIDS epidemic, in an effort to realize her previously stated vision of an “AIDS-free generation.” Clinton also revealed five new directions for US funding for HIV/AIDS work overseas. The funding streams include an additional US$80 million to support approaches that ensure that HIV-positive pregnant women receive treatment to protect themselves and prevent them from spreading the disease to their children and partners; an additional US$40 million to support South Africa’s plans to provide voluntary medical male circumcisions for almost half a million boys and men in the next year; US$15 million for implementation research to identify the specific interventions that are most effective for reaching key populations; US$20 million to launch a challenge fund to support country-led plans to expand services for key populations; and a US$2 million investment in the Robert Carr Civil Society Networks Fund to bolster the efforts of civil society groups in addressing key populations.

Applauding Hillary Clinton’s statement, singer and philanthropist Elton John added that shame and stigma may prevent many people from seeking treatment and protecting themselves in the first place. “We have inexpensive and accurate take-home tests for HIV. But we can’t convince people to get tested if they think their lives don’t count,” said John. Bill Gates, nevertheless, voiced skepticism at the enthusiasm surrounding cries to end the AIDS epidemic. “We don’t have the tools to end the epidemic,” said Gates, citing the lack of an effective AIDS vaccine as the most critical weapon needed to defeat the pandemic. “Only when we have these new tools can we seriously talk about moving toward the end.”

The 6-day AIDS 2012 conference features abstract-driven sessions, daily plenary sessions, a variety of symposia sessions, professional development workshops, and independently organized satellite meetings. The plenary sessions are aimed at setting the tone for the week’s programme, tackling topics such as Viral Eradication, Turning the Tide for Children and Youth, and Expanding Testing and Treatment. The plenary meetings as well as the other sessions feature many high-level speakers, including, former President Bill Clinton and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. A number of rapporteurs is charged with recording the major findings and outcomes of the discussions at the conference, to be presented in a final summary session just before the closing ceremony. Various professional workshops are also held for delegates, with a view to increase their individual capacity to implement and advocate for effective, evidence-informed HIV policies and interventions in their respective communities and countries. The workshops will focus on scientific development, leadership and accountability, and community skills.

In addition to the above, the conference includes a number of programme activities, such as the Global Village and the Youth Programme. Both the Global Village and the Youth Programme are hosting a series of activities based on online submissions by community members from all over the world. The Youth Programme is seeking to strengthen the active involvement of youth in the fight against AIDS.

A series of Affiliated Independent Events organized by different civil society groups is running in parallel to the International AIDS Conference. These events include the Youth Pre-Conference, the 2012 Gay Men Health Summit, the AIDS2012 Film Festival, the 4th International Workshop on HIV Pediatrics, Rowing with the Tide, and many more.

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