While much attention is being paid to South Africa as the host of Africa’s first World Cup, the nation also made history 10 years ago when it hosted the 13th International AIDS Conference. It was the first time the world’s largest AIDS gathering was held in a developing country and it changed the way future conferences would be held.
The theme of the 13th International AIDS Conference was “Break the Silence.” And at the opening ceremony in Durban, performers chanted “No” to the fear and reluctance to talk openly about HIV/AIDS, which had already killed millions.
The conference – known as AIDS 2000 – faced many obstacles. Could an African country host an international conference attracting thousands of participants? Would South Africa’s high crime rate scare people away? Would the idea of focusing more on the social aspects of the disease be successful?
“We have a monumental task ahead of us. And there’s not a second to look back to our yesterdays, to look back at our fears and frustrations. We have no other choice but to go forward and to keep our minds on acting firmly on the knowledge we already have; and of uncovering new ideas and new knowledge on what should be done.”
AIDS 2000 chairman, Professor Gerry Coovadia, speaking on opening day, July 9th, 2000. Today, Dr. Coovadia, Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, considers the legacy of the conference.
“Without exaggerating its impact, it certainly is considered one of the landmark AIDS conferences in the world. And that includes those that have been held recently. And I think the reason it is considered a landmark conference is that quite a number of issues came to the fore,” he said.
Controversy surrounded the Durban AIDS conference even before it opened. President Thabo Mbeki was at the center of it, skeptical a virus was the cause of HIV/AIDS. He said his position was based, in part, on a World Health Organization report that outlined the many health problems facing South Africa and other nations on the continent. Mbeki also said poverty was a major contributor to poor health.
It seemed to me that we could not blame everything on a single virus. It seemed to me also that every living African, whether in good or ill health, is prey to many enemies of health that would interact one upon the other in many ways within one human body,” said Mbeki.
Critics feared if President Mbeki appeared to doubt the link between HIV and the disease, people would not practice safe sex and use condoms.
“One of the questions I’ve asked is: are safe sex, condoms and antiretroviral drugs a sufficient response to the health catastrophes that we face?”
The debate and anger over the issue drew the attention of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who spoke at the closing ceremonies.
“So much unnecessary attention around this conference had been directed towards the dispute that is unintentionally distracting from the real life and death issues we are confronted with as a country,” said Mandela.
He said it would be wrong for the controversy to overshadow the goals of the 13th international AIDS Conference.
“This is not an academic conference. This is, as I understand it, a gathering of human beings concerned about turning around one of the greatest threats humankind has faced. And certainly, the greatest after the end of the great wars of the previous century,” Mandela said.
Professor Coovadia recalls Mbeki’s denial of the virus link and its consequences.
“He disputed the efficacy of some of the (antiretroviral) drugs, which is in a way just as bad or even worse - because it prevented access to drugs, which could have been affordable at least to South Africa,” he said.
In the end, the words of Nelson Mandela became a battle cry for many at the Conference.
“In the face of the great threat posed by HIV/AIDS, we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people…. Let us not equivocate. A tragedy of unprecedented proportion is unfolding in Africa,” he said.
Professor Coovadia said Mandel’s words affected him personally.
“I came as close to weeping as I possibly could. And I think more than that, you may not remember, there was an absolute, unqualified and spontaneous standing ovation for what Mr. Mandela said.
However, Coovadia describes the fight against HIV/AIDS during the Mbeki administration as the “worst years.” He says government policies delayed needed treatment and misinformed and confused the public.
Coovadia now serves on President Zuma’s 26-member National Planning Commission.
Many consider AIDS 2000 as the first major conference to put a human face on the epidemic. UNAIDS estimates about 60 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV since the epidemic began about 30 years ago. About 25 million have died from HIV-related illnesses. The vast majority of those living with and dying from HIV/AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa.
The next International AIDS Conference, the 18th, will be held in Vienna July 18th through the 23rd.