[dropcap]F[/dropcap]inally, the moment came – The 21st International Conference on AIDS kicked off in Durban, South Africa on the 18th of July, the birthday of Nelson Mandela. With the largest number of registered delegates at a health conference, it has been a refreshing and yet challenging start. The efficiency of the organisers, the warmth of the hosts, the vibrancy of Durban all combined to create an atmosphere of expectation at the conference themed “Access Equity Rights Now”.
Durban to Durban: South Africa’s Success Story
With the Deputy President of South Africa, His Excellency Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, leading the opening ceremony, the progress South Africa had made between the first conference in 2000 and this year was the focus of many speeches. It is no mean feat – with 3.4 million people on treatment, costing the South African government $1.2B annually, it is by far the largest treatment programme in the world. South Africa is seeing the results: life expectancy has increased by over 10 years and mother – to – child transmission of HIV reduced by 85% from 90,000 per year to 5,000. Coming from a dark period of AIDS denialism of the Thabo Mbeki era 20 years ago – South Africa has indeed come a long way. South Africans must be proud.
The highlight of the moving opening ceremony, however, was Charlize Theron, a South African-born movie star, introduced by Kweku Mandela (Mandela’s grandson – note this name). Charlize pulled no punches when she said that despite all the progress made, we were far from a point of celebration.
[pullquote] “AIDS does not discriminate – people do! We value some lives more than others, men over women, rich over poor, straight over gay, adults over children…HIV is not just transmitted by sex, but also by racism, sexism and homophobia…if we are to end AIDS, we must cure the disease in our hearts and minds.” ~ Charlize Theron, AIDS2016 Opening Ceremony [/pullquote]
Searching for Nigeria at #AIDS2016
Nigeria got a small mention during the opening ceremony, as the beautiful and talented musician Waje joined three other African vocalists to perform the song – “Strong girl”.
The previous evening had seen the opening of the Global Village. The International AIDS Conference is known for its intersection of science, advocacy and activism, and this one was no different. The community village is full of exhibitions of projects being delivered in communities across the continent, targeting all infected and affected populations. As we worked around the stands of the community organisations and exhibitors showcasing the work that they do, we searched for something, anything from Nigeria- but found nothing. Is there really nothing to share? This was the first indication that Nigeria would be largely absent from this conference.
However, the biggest source of sadness was in searching the abstract submissions looking for presentations and posters from Nigerian colleagues. We found only a tiny handful. With an estimated 3.5 million Nigerians infected, the second largest burden of HIV on the continent and over 50 universities, it is astonishing how little we are contributing to the body of evidence relating to HIV/AIDS. We seem to be consolidating our place as primarily a consumer country.
In addition to our almost complete absence from the science, we are also missing from the policy and advocacy space. While some members of civil society are in Durban, they all appear to be attendees rather than conveners. We meet on the corridors of the conference, exchange the usual banter and hope, as we always do – that things will get better in Nigeria.
— Health GAP (@HealthGAP) July 18, 2016
In the meantime at the conference, we heard extensively from members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a civil society organisation in South Africa championing the movement for the treatment of poor and disadvantaged South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Their voice was loud and their actions were resolute as they led a march on City Hall in Durban to bring attention to their cause, #Treatment4All, and to ask those in governance to increase funding for HIV/AIDS treatment.
We, however, heard that there are a few events that included Nigerians, and did run into one event on the first day organised by Nigerians. Kids & Teens Resource Centre, which runs projects in Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara and Plateau states, convened a panel discussion at the Global Village of the conference that explored ways men can play stronger roles in the support and care of HIV patients. Folashade Bamigboye, the convener of the discussion, said that in their work with kids and teens, they realised that there were many more female caregivers than there were male. The panel discussion was born out of the desire to increase the number of men that provide care and support for HIV patients in Nigeria and around the world. Panel discussants included Bamigboye, Martin Mary Falana, E.D. Kids & Teens Resource Centre, Moses Okpara of the Country Coordinating Mechanism for TB and HIV, and Yemisi Ogundare of FHI360.
There is no doubt that the tight financial situation in Nigeria has led to less support being available to attend conferences. But, the paucity of engagement really is a strange situation, given that the conference is being hosted in Africa and provides a unique opportunity for scientists to share their most recent findings. Most critically, this AIDS conference is a chance for civil society to meet and engage with governments and donors where decisions that change lives are often made. There is the obvious opportunity for networking and sharing information on what works, so we do not all repeat the same mistakes.
A unique Global Health Conference
The International AIDS Conference is no ordinary conference. It is the largest conference on any global health or development issue in the world. Unlike most other medical conferences that focus only on the science, it provides a unique forum for the intersection of science, advocacy, and human rights – bringing scientists together with advocates, people living with HIV together with policy makers. Creators and curators of science come together with consumers. Sadly, Nigeria remains largely with the consumers.
Some of the key scientific issues that are emerging include progress towards a cure or sustained remission of HIV infection. Although, this has not yet been achieved, there is an increasing body of knowledge on this. But by far the most important emerging issue is the lack of progress in reducing the number of new infections in adults, currently at about 2 million per year.
Are we reaching an inflection point with HIV/AIDS? We will answer this question, when we share the highlights of the conference in our next blog. Stick with us…
More photos of the first few days at the AIDS 2016 Conference.