MELBOURNE - In 20 years, the International AIDS Conference has ballooned from a gathering of some 2,000 scientists at the inaugural 1985 meeting in Atlanta, to this year’s multi-disciplinary gathering of 12,000 scientists, activists and people living with the virus. The latest conference in Melbourne, Australia covered a seemingly endless array of topics, from the hard science to social issues.
At the 2014 AIDS conference, condoms are as common as toothbrushes, sex and safety are brought up in the same breath, and AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but a plausible theme for a dance party.
But this conference was not all about glitz and glam.
Improved testing, treatment
At this year’s event in Melbourne, scientists and researchers also hit hard against the disease with powerful research.
Medical advances include improvements in testing and treatment -- and, this year, a pill that may help prevent HIV transmission.
Dr. James Rooney of Gilead Sciences explains how a prevention protocol, called “PrEP,” works.
“So PrEP is actually a new strategy for preventing HIV infection," he said. "It’s a strategy that uses HIV drugs that are oftentimes used for treatment, but in this case, the drugs are actually given to individuals who are at high risk for becoming infected.”
But the event was not without its own tragedy.
Just days before the conference began, six top figures in the fight against AIDS were killed when their plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine. The tragedy prompted outpourings of grief, which began with a minute of silence, led by International AIDS Society President Francoise Barre-Sinoussi.
“I would love to be telling you that we were opening this conference in happier times," she said. "The extent of the loss of our colleagues and friends is still hard for me to express. We grieve alongside all of those throughout the world who have lost family and friends in this senseless tragedy."
The week-long event also brought in some big names.
“We are here on the 20th anniversary of the conference to celebrate so much of the progress that has been made because the world made the right decision to fight AIDS and now, to create a generation free of it. We dare not walk away. And all of us should lead the way,” former U.S. president Bill Clinton said.
In a way, this tragic epidemic, which has killed an estimated 39 million people since the early 1980s, has blown open previously taboo subjects. AIDS has forced the world to talk about long-simmering issues like sex, gender issues, inequality, violence and education.
It’s a huge price to pay, but one that AIDS activists say has paved the path for a more understanding and a more interesting and colorful world.