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Critics Question Cost of AIDS Conference


The 17th International AIDS Conference is winding down in Mexico City. The closing ceremony will be held Friday. This was one of the biggest and most expensive such conferences, drawing more than 24,000 participants from all over the world. But there has been no major announcement and, as VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Mexico City, the multi-million dollar conference has spawned a few critics.

Most people in attendance here believe it was worth the expense and time to come here for the AIDS Conference, but after several days of formal sessions and informal gatherings many admit to being exhausted and, in some cases, discouraged.

More than two decades after AIDS first appeared there have been some major improvements in treatment and prevention programs, but a cure remains elusive. The conference itself is seen by many participants as a useful way of keeping world attention on the problem, but some participants question whether the cost involved was worth it. An African participant who spoke to VOA suggested that perhaps all the money spent here would have been better spent on AIDS research or treatment programs.

One vocal critic is Elizabeth Pisani, author of The Wisdom of Whores, a book that chronicles some of her experience working in the AIDS field for the past 15 years. Speaking to VOA, she questions the direction the conference has taken.

"It used to be a scientific conference, it used to be a place where people got together to catch up on one another's research and to really understand the latest of what is going on. That is not so necessary anymore because communications have moved on so much-the internet, online journals. There are so many ways to communicate now that we did not have previously. Also, these conferences have become so political and it so much about showmanship," she said.

Pisani says these conferences attract what she likes to call the "AIDS Mafia", which includes various non-governmental organizations as well as pharmaceutical firms and AIDS activists, all of whom, she says, benefit from the event. She says the host city, in this case Mexico City, also benefits, not just from the money spent by the more than 24,000 visitors, but directly from the profits of the conference itself.

"Everyone here, as a delegate, paid $1,000 or more to be here. They are profit-making enterprises and that profit gets shared between the International AIDS Society and the city in which the conference is held. On the other hand, I am here. That is my personal hypocrisy. I am here because I get to catch up with old colleagues and such," she said.

Elizabeth Pisani describes the AIDS Conference as a big party that has value in bringing people together, but may not be worth the millions of dollars spent on the event and the money spent by the participants to get here.

In spite of her admission that she, too, is some ways part of what she calls the "AIDS Mafia", Pisani and her ideas are not very popular with the people who organized this event.

Craig McClure, Executive Director of the International AIDS Society, the principal sponsor of the conference, rejects the idea that the money could have been better spent elsewhere.

He tells VOA that there is great value in bringing various groups and people together in common cause. "Industry, scientists, celebrities, politicians, all coming together to work together to respond to HIV sends a message to everyone working on every other issue in the world that the way forward is to engage the people most effected and to engage leadership. So I think this conference is well worth the $25 million it costs to put it on," he said.

McClure says the conference is also valuable for the attention it draws from the international media, whose reports help remind the world of the importance of prevention as well as the need for more research. He says the conference also has a positive impact on the country where it is held.

McClure says the benefits are already apparent here in Mexico. "[There is] a stronger partnership between the community, science and the government. [There was] an announcement from President [Felipe] Calderon, who two years ago was actually quite conservative about HIV and AIDS. At the opening he announced that he would end the law that prevents the import of medication from companies that do not have plants in Mexico. He met with 50 NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and committed to fighting homophobia," he said.

The International AIDS Conference comes to a close Friday.


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