Explainer: A brief history of the International AIDS Conference

Q. What three-letter acronym describes a gathering of nearly 30,000 scientists, activists, policymakers and advocates working on HIV/AIDS?
A. IAC

This year, the International AIDS Conference (IAC) will be held in Washington, DC, from July 22 to 27. While DC hosts a lot of conferences, the return of the IAC to DC is a really big deal. In 2009, President Obama lifted the long-standing travel ban on HIV-positive individuals entering the United States, which paved the way for the IAC to return to the US for the first time in more than 20 years.

The IAC is the leading conference on HIV/AIDS, providing a forum for stakeholders to discuss where we are in the fight against AIDS, what we have learned, and how do we move forward. The theme of the conference is Turning the Tide Together, emphasizing both the promising scientific developments in HIV treatment and prevention as well as the need for a global commitment to change the course of the epidemic. Speakers at this year’s IAC include former President Bill Clinton, Michel Sidibe (UNAIDS), Ambassador Eric Goosby (PEPFAR), Bill Gates, Sir Elton John and Whoopi Goldberg.

The IAC has had a long, rich history from almost the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic. It has played many roles over the years, from meeting place to moment. Some highlights from past IACs include:

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Atlanta, 1985: The first IAC was organized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and Emory University. More than 2,000 scientists and public health officials gathered in Atlanta to share information on the emerging new disease.

Photo caption: With HIV/AIDS rapidly spreading and killing, protests were numerous at the 1987 March on Washington. This ACT-UP coalition made a strong statement about governmental policies on the disease. The AIDS Quilt was also on display at the March; this moment was unforgetable. © Linda Hollingdate Photography

Washington, DC, 1987: The third IAC hosted more than 6,000 participants, garnering widespread media attention as discourse around the epidemic took a political turn. Protests and demonstrations took place after several controversial statements from figures in the US administration.

Vancouver, 1996: The ninth IAC, attended by 15,000 participants, marked a watershed moment in the history of the epidemic. In this year, researchers reported on successful studies of highly active antiretroviral therapy, which would transform HIV/AIDS from a fatal, incurable disease to a chronic illness which could be managed with proper treatment. Needless to say, the overall atmosphere in Vancouver among scientists and activists was one of hope and excitement.


IAC Durban, 2000. Photo credit: Dipity.com

Durban, South Africa, 2000: The 13th IAC was also the first one held in a developing country, underscoring the magnitude of the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa as well as the disparities in treatment access in the developing world. Just prior to the conference, 5,000 scientists and doctors signed the Durban Declaration, confirming the overwhelming scientific evidence that the HIV virus was the cause of AIDS at a time when AIDS denialism was rising up from within the South African presidency.


AIDS Conference in Vienna; Photo by IAS/Steve Forrest

Vienna, 2010: The 18th IAC was held in Vienna in part because the organizers wanted to highlight the challenges of fighting the epidemic in the Eastern and Central Europe region. To this point, the Vienna Declaration was signed by more than 12,000 scientists calling on drug policies based on science, not ideology.

Check out the IAC website for more information and continue monitoring ONE.org for more information in the upcoming weeks. And most importantly, urge Congress to protect life-saving HIV/AIDS programs in the world’s poorest places by signing our petition here.