We could not attend the International Conference on AIDS in Washington DC this year, so we asked Fiona Makia to share her experience at the conference. This is her story!
This year’s conference was held in Washington DC with the theme “Turning the Tide”. The tide had indeed turned as it had taken 22 years for the conference to return to the United States. For the past 22 years a travel and immigration ban against people with HIV has meant that holding the conference in the United States was not possible, but with the ban lifted all roads led to the Walter E Washington Convention Centre in Washington. The convention centre was enormous, with so many seminar and meeting rooms of various shapes and sizes, but for the excellently produced maps and the guidance of the friendly volunteers, one could easily get lost.
The opening ceremony certainly produced the wow factor, well at least for starters. Everyone had been expecting Mr President himself, but due to the unfortunate Aurora shooting incident, the President was on a condolence mission. Traditional Native American rites were performed at the beginning of the opening ceremony and these were followed by a beautiful rendition of “I’ll be there” by the Gay Men’s Choir of Washington D.C. Then came the speeches. Each one very powerful and motivating aimed at welcoming congratulating and challenging delegates simultaneously. Each speaker leaving the listeners with at least one statement, one sentence, one word to remember them by.
A first for conference was having the President of the World Bank address the delegates. Dr Jim Yong Kim left us with “We are looking realistically at an end to HIV/AIDS”. Michael Sidibe UNAIDS executive director informed us that “they are currently more people on treatment than people who need treatment” he also told a brief tale about a casket maker in Lesotho who was talking about how his business was not doing so well because the people with HIV were no longer dying at the rate they were previously. Whatever else he said at the opening ceremony, the Mayor of Washington D.C Vincent E Gray, will be remembered for roaring at the crowd “Let’s keep HIV/AIDS in the rear view mirror!”
Then there were the emotional heart felt speeches form those who openly declared living with HIV. Anna Sango a 24 year old lady from Zimbabwe who asked “Why are we still debating basic sex education?” and also went on to implore planners and policy makers to include everyone in policy and decision making processes. “Nothing for us, without us” was a slogan that was heard many times from different groups throughout the week-long conference.
Florence was introduced by Michel Sidibe as one of two people he invited onto to the stage so that the Americans could see real examples of just two of the millions of people who had benefitted from tax payers contributions into the PEPFAR funds. Florence told the crowd she was from Nigeria and had been living positively with HIV for 14 years. The second person next to her was her daughter, 13 years old and born HIV free. The crowd gave a rapturous applause. Florence thanked the American people and PEPFAR for their support. Her daughter also thanked the American people but went on to question why so many children are being born HIV positive and why so many mothers are dying of the virus, she appealed to everyone saying she wanted more children in the world to share her success. The Conference was full of so much activity. On day 2 Hilary Clinton gave a powerful, motivating speech which reflected not only the American government’s commitment to the control of HIV/AIDS worldwide, it also reflected her own personal passion to the cause.
The Global village at the conference was larger than previously witnessed, with so many organisations, one could have spent the whole week there alone. This was the one part of the conference that was free and open to the general public. It was diverse and vibrant and the activities held there included debates, workshops and discussions. It was a place to learn and celebrate through culture and art. Even more importantly it was a place to engage under-represented communities.
Amongst the presentations and posters at the conference 146 were based on or from Nigeria and there was a good representation of Nigerian delegates. A number of the presentations from Nigeria focused on stigmatised and under-represented communities such as sex workers, men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users. An interesting poster titled “Can antiretroviral drugs reach all HIV/AIDS clients that need them? Evidence from a survey in Southeast Nigeria, ( Eze et al) brought home a sad reality. Despite all the effort made by major donor agencies and country governments to address access to antiretrovirals people still face access barriers which include stigma, loss of confidentiality in the
clinic procedures which led to their records identifying them as HIV positive, fear of not getting married and long waiting queues at the treatment centres and the cost of transportation. A really encouraging poster, “Football as a means of integrating HIV and AIDS education among young people in Nigeria” (C.Daodu and O.Falana) was proof of the value of “nothing for us, without us” slogan. Having asked young people, football was identified as a free time suitable for interventions. A novelty football match was organized. There were HIV talks before the game, during half time and at the end of the game there was condom demonstration to promote effective use of condoms among sexually active young people in the community. This was a successful way of intervening with young people.
AIDS 2012 was motivational, awe inspiring, and challenging. We could pat ourselves on the back for achievements to date, acknowledge the errors of our ways in certain situations and remind ourselves that this is neither the time to slow down or shift focus but to be united in turning the tide against HIV/AIDS.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead
Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (www.epiafric.com), which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.