Jul. 12 2016

A Global Gathering to End AIDS

Mailman School faculty take part in the 21st annual International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa

The largest gathering of academic, community, government, and corporate actors focused on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, the 21st International AIDS Conference (IAC) begins on July 18 in Durban, South Africa. Part science, part spectacle, IAC is  remarkable for its size, energy, and social imprint. The selection of Durban as host marks a return to the same city in South Africa, where, in 2000, the conference took place for the first time in a resource-limited country. The familiar note of urgency in this year’s theme, “Access Equity Rights Now,” contains a reminder that, despite years of progress, politics remains a part of the HIV/AIDS frontier.

“The 2016 International AIDS Conference comes at a time of great promise in the fight to end AIDS,” says Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP at Columbia. “It is such a bittersweet moment as the world again turns its eyes to Durban. We celebrate momentous achievements, with more than 16 million people accessing life-saving HIV treatment and a 35-percent decrease in new infections. Yet so much more remains to be done.”

Held every other year, IAC attracts more than 15,000 delegates for a four-day event that earns as many front-page headlines as scientific citations. In 2000, when the conference was first held in Durban, its theme, “Breaking the Silence,” reflected a world of disparities where millions in poor countries were dying of AIDS while those in rich countries had access to treatment. In addition to galvanizing a global coalition of AIDS activists, this reality motivated the establishment of ICAP at the Mailman School to confront this inequity. In 2004, at the first IAC in Asia, the Bangkok hosts arranged for elephants to promenade through the parking lot, some painted with the conference slogan “Access for All.” In 2006, Toronto audiences snarled escalators for hours awaiting “The Bills,” a panel featuring Bill Clinton and Bill Gates. After President Barack Obama lifted travel restrictions on people living with HIV entering the country, the conference returned to the United States after a 22-year hiatus.

IAC is distinct from other scientific conferences in other ways as well. It is shaped by a coalition of scientists, policymakers, public health practitioners, clinicians, community members and people living with HIV. This nature of that diversity, illustrated by the conference agenda as well as the roster of participants, offers a rare opportunity for constituencies that do not always see eye-to-eye to listen and learn from each other. In addition to the scientific program, a temporary exhibit dubbed the Global Village features the work of nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups. The conference also hosts training sessions, demonstrations, performance, and artwork from every country on earth that has been affected by HIV.

Scientists and clinicians from the Mailman School have always contributed new ideas at the conference, from the scale-up of treatment to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission as exemplified by the MTCT-Plus Initiative pioneered by ICAP, to the microbicide trial results presented by CAPRISA, the Durban-based AIDS research center. This year, Mailman School voices include Claude Ann Mellins, Richard Parker, and Patrick Wilson. Amaya Perez-Brumer, a doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences, will share new findings on stigma and HIV prevention among transgendered women in Lima, Peru. ICAP will co-sponsor a major pre-conference meeting on the state of nursing and global HIV and a pre-conference on advances and challenges in pediatric HIV. Salim Abdool Karim, director of CAPRISA, will release findings about a microbe linked to vaginal inflammation that exacerbates HIV risk.

A complete guide to Mailman School participation in the International AIDS Conference is available below. ICAP activities are also listed here.