The XIX International AIDS Conference opens on Sunday, July 22, the first time the US has hosted the conference since 1990 when Congress placed the now-lifted ban on people with HIV entering the country. The Obama Administration proclaimed in a press release: “We are at a tipping point in the fight against AIDS. As the largest global donor, we see an AIDS-free generation in sight. As President Obama said on World AIDS Day, we will win this fight.”
But that optimism is not shared by everyone, including AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein, who said Obama skipping the conference “speaks volumes.” Indeed, as a conversation about the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy –its key accomplishments, challenges, and future directions – is occurring from 1:30-3:30p Eastern (which is being webcast live and free by the Kaiser Family Foundation) – AIDS Healthcare Foundation is spearheading a march entitled “Keep the Promise on HIV/AIDS” March on Washington” – starting at 2:00pm, Eastern. The march starts at the Washington Monument with a rally that includes a performance by Wyclef Jean, a keynote by former Ambassador Andrew Young, and remarks from civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, Dr. Cornel West and a special message from Nobel Peace Laureate, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as AHF President Michael Weinstein and several people living with HIV/AIDS. Margaret Cho emcees. AHF reports that 1,432 organizations from 103 countries and 2,333 individuals have signed on in support of the March and the “Keep the Promise” Declaration. (Follow the march on Facebook and on Twitter @AIDSMarch2012.)
AHF says in a press release:
The ‘Keep the Promise’ rally and march will serve as a clarion call for universal access to AIDS care and treatment; for more efficient use of the limited funding from sources including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR); for big world economies and the G20 to fully fund the Global Fund as well as for the lowering of AIDS drug prices by pharmaceutical companies to allow for the treatment of more patients with the same amount of money.
In advance of the conference, Phill Wilson and the Black AIDS Institute released a new report “Back of the Line: The State of AIDS Among Black Gay Men in America 2012” saying:
Although Black gay men have been disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS since the epidemic first appeared in the early 1980s, the country has yet to mount a meaningful response to this crisis. Representing a mere 1 in 500 people living in the U.S., Black gay men account for nearly 1 in 4 new HIV infections. And the problem is getting worse, with new infections among Black gay men rapidly rising.
Additionally, there is ever-growing concern about the criminalization of HIV. POZ Magazine founder Sean Strub questions: “Take the Test, Risk Arrest?” He writes: “But no one should get tested without also understanding the legal implications. HIV criminalization is real, it is happening all over the country and it is on the increase.”
Conference attendees can also expect a debate over the July 16 FDA approval of Gilead Science’s drug Truvada for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) as a daily prevention method for HIV-negatives. CNN reports:
Most of the more than 40 health care professionals, AIDS advocates and patients who addressed the committee implored its members not to recommend the drug for the new indication.
“There is no question that, if efforts on using PrEP is widespread, condom use and other means of preventing HIV infection will decrease,” said Robert Elliott, a registered nurse. “At this point we simply don’t know enough about how to increase adherence rates to work with the PrEP or how to counteract the risk compensation and the use of PrEP. Until then, PrEP is not and cannot be considered safe and effective for preventing HIV infections.”
AIDS Activist Miki Jackson agreed. “A recommendation for the use of Truvada as PrEP is akin to issuing an engraved invitation for lawsuits,” she said. “To knowingly recommend a drug as powerful as Truvada with such serious serious side effects and given to people who are perfectly healthy is frightening.”
Michael Weinstein, president and founder of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said he was concerned that approval could lead a decrease in condom use. “Approving PrEP would be a reckless act,” he said.
Not everything at the conference is expected to be controversial. Anne Balsamo, director of learning at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, grew up “when AIDS was a death sentence for a lot of young men. Everyone knew a person who had lost someone, and you couldn’t not be affected.” Balsamo and her team at USC decided to digitize the AIDS Quilt for which they created a mobile APP: http://www.aidsquilttouch.org/
And UCLA is present, too, in a seven-minute documentary “Through Positive Eyes,” a project organized by David Gere, UCLA professor of world arts and cultures / dance and a leading AIDS activist who heads the UCLA Art & Global Health Center, with award-winning photographer Gideon Mendel. Through photos and stories, the documentary illustrates stigma, “extreme social inequality and the struggle to obtain medication,” according to a UCLA press release. Additionally, Gere has placed art work throughout the Walter E. Washington Convention Center from The A.R.T. Show (Anti Retroviral Therapy), created by South African artists in response to the ongoing epidemic.
From the UCLA press release:
“The big people who administer the world’s major AIDS organizations and agencies live in a swirl of deadening statistics — rates of infection, numbers of condoms distributed, cost of health care per citizen,” said Gere. “The works of art in The A.R.T. Show replace dry statistics with human-scale images, which have the capacity to resonate on multiple levels.”
The UCLA activists then hope to leverage Twitter and the photo app Instagram to disseminate their call to action. Participants and visitors to the conference will be encouraged to take photos and post them — using hashtag #MakeArtStopAIDS — to share their experiences and expand the dialogue about the disease from the nation’s capital to the rest of the country and the world.
“There will be thousands of presentations at this AIDS conference, most soon forgotten,” Gere said. “But good art is memorable.”
Southern California will be well-represented throughout the conference – including with The Wall Las Memorias founder Richard Zaldivar serving as opening ceremonies emcee on Monday.