Science was at the forefront of the opening event of the XIX International AIDS Conference on day two, but the “dream team” and a rock star also made an appearance, in a rousing plenary session attended by more than a thousand members of the global public health community in Washington, DC.
In an opening presentation entitled, “Ending the HIV/AIDS Pandemic: From Scientific Advance to Public Health Implementation,” Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) captured more than 30 years of the epidemic’s history in less than 20 minutes, from what he called the “dark years” of the 1980’s to the present day “new dawn of therapeutics.” Recapping the increasing evidence behind biomedical approaches from prevention of mother-to-child transmission, voluntary male medical circumcision, and treatment as prevention, Dr Fauci underscored the fact that those working in the field of HIV today must “marry the biological with the behavioral.” He closed his remarks by saying how proud he was, after attending 18 previous AIDS conferences, to be able to say, “We do have the scientific basis to implement!”
Fauci was followed by Phil Wilson, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute, who also applauded the tools and knowledge available today, after 31 years of living with this epidemic. Wilson’s mood grew more sober, however, as he highlighted the dismal reality for black American men who have sex with men: at age 25, their odds are one in four that they will contract the virus; by age 40, 59.3% are infected. Wilson enumerated five steps to end the epidemic, starting with fully implementing the Affordable Care Act and ending with a plea to AIDS organizations to “re-tool” themselves – noting that community based organizations are central to the fight against the epidemic but are not in a position to deliver health services or implement the important, effective biomedical interventions that exist today.
UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé took the stage briefly, reminding the audience that he had called upon them on the conference’s opening day to “dream big dreams” and think of the opportunity that exists today to end this epidemic. He referred to his own dream team – mentioning President Obama, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and US Global AIDS Coordinator Eric Goosby — and then called to the podium the woman that the New York Times referred to a few weeks ago as the “rock star diplomat,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
As chanting activists tried to drown out her voice, Secretary Clinton opened her remarks with the words, “What would an AIDS conference be without a little protesting?” and moved on, talking about how AIDS is no longer the death sentence that it once was, and highlighting the possibility that we are moving toward an AIDS-free generation.
Clinton spoke enthusiastically about the role that the US government has played in the global fight against HIV, lauding the creation of the Presidents Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), as well as the work of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Acknowledging that all the work “only matters if in the end we are saving more lives,” Clinton reiterated the US government’s commitment to the effort to fight AIDS, announcing an $80 million investment to help pregnant women in developing countries receive treatment and prevention services; $15 million in scientific research aimed at specific interventions for key at-risk populations; a $20 million challenge fund to support country-led efforts to target key populations; and a $2 million investment to reinforce civil society organizations’ efforts for those most at-risk.
More than 20,000 health workers, people living with HIV/AIDS, development specialists, and community activists are attending the AIDS conference, which concludes this Friday. For more on MSH’s presence at the event, visit MSH at AIDS 2012.
Elizabeth Walsh is director of communications in MSH’s Center for Leadership & Management.