In July 2012, the world’s largest AIDS conference comes to Washington, D.C. It’s the first time the gathering will be held in the United States since 1990 and preparations are already underway.
Despite the massive U.S. financial, medical and scientific contributions to the fight against HIV/AIDS, a major issue blocked the conference from being held here. That was a law that prohibited HIV infected people from traveling to the United States. In was passed in 1987 in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Efforts to lift the ban began during President George W. Bush’s second administration. It was finally repealed in January 2010 under President Obama.
To International AIDS Society President and conference co-chair – Dr. Elly Katabira – that’s very good news.
“So now we’re in business,” he says.
Similar to D.C.
Katabira has visited Washington, D.C. to meet with city officials about the 19th International AIDS Conference, also known as AIDS 2012.
“The epidemic in the U.S. and in particular Washington, D.C., is not very different from other highly affected countries in the sub-Saharan region and other regions of the world. So, coming here would give us an opportunity, and also Washington, D.C., an opportunity, to share the experiences, learn from each other, mistakes and so on,” he says.
A prominent Washington HIV treatment and care facility – the Whitman-Walker Clinic – says 3 percent of the city’s adult population is confirmed to have HIV. Another 3 to 5 percent are believed to be HIV positive, but have not been diagnosed. Most of the new infections are among African-Americans and gay men.
The theme of AIDS 2012 is yet to be determined.
“We haven’t yet worked on the theme. Normally, the theme comes close to the time of the conference. The reason is that the conference now has one and a half years to go. If you have a theme now, things may change over time. And the theme, once you’ve decided, you can’t change it. It becomes irrelevant,” he says, adding, “So, we’ll start discussing the theme somewhere in the middle of this year. And towards the end of this year, then we will have a theme for the conference.”
Katabira visited Washington at a time when the House of Representatives has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
He urges Congress to reject those cuts, especially since the conference is being held in the nation’s capital.
“If they would listen to me, my pledge would be, please, don’t do any more cuts. In anything, put up more money. The reason is, we appreciate the economic front, because we don’t want to be on the negative side alone. We definitely appreciate the reason behind the cuts. But then also we need to appreciate that the epidemic itself is still burning. And any further cuts are likely to make the escalation of the epidemic worse,” he says.
He says he fears if the U.S. cuts AIDS funding, other nations will follow suit.
“The rest of the world has stood on the benefits of the U.S. government and the people of the U.S. Once they hear that even the U.S. is cutting down they may think it is relevant for them also either to stay [keep] the status quo or to cut the funding,” he says.
Each International AIDS Society president puts his or her mark on the conference, a personal goal, if you will. Dr. Katabira is no different.
“Mine,” he says, “is leadership and accountability. Much as I appreciate the support from all the G8 [nations], including the U.S. and other public/private stakeholders, I want to emphasize that with…the possibility of funding likely to be reduced, ourselves, the recipients, the beneficiaries of this support, need to be more focused in actually maximizing whatever we get from this country. Use the amount of money as effectively and efficiently [as possible], so we can reach much more people than we are doing today with the current funding.”
The 19th International AIDS Conference will be held from July 22nd through the 27th, 2012.