Dispatches from Day 1 of the International AIDS Conference

photo[1]Welcome to our coverage for ONE of the 19th International AIDS Conference (IAC) here in Washington, DC—home for the week to 20,000+ AIDS activists and all the high-profile speakers, red ribbon wearers, media outlets, and condom distributors you can imagine. My colleague Khai and I will be providing updates throughout the week, with Khai focused primarily on the scientific news and me writing primarily about the political dynamics of the conference. For more frequent live updates, you can also find me at @Global_ErinH on twitter and share your feedback in real time.

This is the first time I’ve ever been able to attend the conference, and it’s as colorful and dynamic as IAC veterans have described to me. Just in the last 24 hours, I’ve heard remarks from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, World Bank President Jim Kim, DC Mayor Vincent Gray, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe, NIAID Director Dr. Tony Fauci, Black AIDS Institute CEO Phil Wilson, and Global Fund Board Co-Chair Mphu Ramatlapeng, just to name a few. The diversity of that list alone should convey the wide range of perspectives they brought to the stage, and as you might imagine, they all spoke passionately about the fight against AIDS and the historic opportunity we have ahead of us to begin to end the AIDS pandemic. You can watch archived video of many of their remarks at the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website.

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And yet in spite of all the gravitas of the speakers, and in spite of all the dynamism of the AIDS community represented here, there’s also a noticeable sense of quiet from the audience. For a conference that’s often described as noisy and rowdy, there have been few protests and equally few standing ovations (Secretary Clinton’s speech notwithstanding on both fronts). As I sat in the crowd, surrounded by hundreds of AIDS Quilt panels adorning the plenary walls, I was left wondering why there wasn’t more enthusiasm or passion reverberating around me.

Then, I did a quick review of all the speeches I had heard so far, and I realized they had essentially all said the same things, the same platitudes, and the same “inspirational words” over and over again. If I had collected a dollar for every time I heard “we can and must end this disease”; “we must turn the tide together”; “we’ve come so far, but we can’t stop now”; or “we’re at a tipping point” I might be well on my way to filling the current AIDS financing gap. While all of these phrases are true and the underlying messages behind them important, they feel pretty empty when strung together over the course of the day. Indeed, to an audience of AIDS activists who have been at this fight much longer than I have, the messages must sound obvious at best and tired at worst. We all want to see the beginning of the end of AIDS; the real question, whispered and debated in the hallways, is how.

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So it is perhaps ironic (though not to my colleagues who think I’m a nerd) that I found the biggest inspiration of the day not in the main plenary room but in a smaller technical session across the Convention Center. There, to much less fanfare, a panel of researchers were presenting on their efforts to scale up voluntary medical male circumcision—one key new prevention technique cited as pivotal in broader efforts to help break the back of the pandemic. Though there were no breakthroughs announced in the session or speakers who would have been recognized on the street, there were real questions being debated, real challenges in the field being described, and real dialogue with the audience. Together, the panelists and audience members were wrestling with one element of how we’ll better prevent HIV, and it was invigorating. The session was a good reminder that the IAC is, at its core, a technical and scientific meeting, and it is up to advocates to translate technical knowledge into powerful messages that will drive us forward. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you throughout the week—the whats, the hows, and the whys—and also sharing brief interviews with you that I’ve been conducting on the sidelines. Stay tuned!