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AIDS 2012 opens in Washington, DC with call for renewed political will and commitment to get to zero

<p>Feature story</p>

July 22, 2012

After more than two decades, the International AIDS Conference has returned to the United States, representing the renewed commitment for the global HIV response. The XIX International AIDS Conference opened on 22 July in Washington, DC, under the theme “Turning the Tide Together.”

Over the next five days, the U.S. capital will welcome an more than 20 000 delegates from all over the world who will spend the next week participating in a series of sessions, panels and community-led discussions that focus on mobilizing governments and communities to achieve the vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

The conference theme ‘Turning the tide together’ was selected to reflect what is considered by many as a unique moment in the history of the HIV epidemic. According to the organizers, by acting decisively on recent scientific advances in HIV treatment and biomedical prevention, building momentum for an HIV cure, and harnessing the evidence of the ability to scale-up key interventions in the most-needed settings, an end to the epidemic is now within reach.

Addressing several thousand delegates at the opening session, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé stressed the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in getting to zero. He spoke about ongoing social transformation in the response, citing progress in the areas of HIV prevention, treatment, science, and investments.

“For the first time, we have more people on treatment than people who need treatment. We have broken the trajectory on new infections, with a worldwide decline of 20% since 2001, and mortality is also declining,” said Mr Sidibé. “Yet, in these times of unprecedented political, financial, economic and social crisis, I am scared for the future of global solidarity. From many places in the developed world I am hearing, “We cannot afford to keep our promises. We have our own problems at home.” My response is simple: We know how to get to Zero. All that can stop us now is indecision and lack of courage.”

Mr Sidibé thanked the American people and the bipartisan support for the global response to HIV. “Millions of people would not be alive today without American compassion, generosity and solidarity. We are indebted to the brave American activists who gave birth to the AIDS movement 30 years ago,” he added. “We are thankful to President Bush and President Obama for putting us on the road to zero.”

In his address, Elly Katabira, President of the International AIDS Society (IAS) and AIDS 2012 International Chair, also reminded delegates of the renewed political commitment to HIV. He cited the conference’s return to the United States after more than 20 years as symbolic of the support at the highest levels to end HIV-related stigma and discrimination. “The last time this conference was in DC was in 1987. In 1992, it was planned for Boston but had to be moved because of a ban that had been imposed to prevent HIV infected people from entering the United States,” said Mr Katabira. “Our return to the United States comes at a time of extraordinary hope.”

Diane Havlir, U.S. Co-Chair of AIDS 2012 U.S. and Co-Chair and Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, called on delegates to use the next week to take the results achieved to date to the next level. “We know what works: we must increase HIV testing, treatment, and other components of combination prevention, like PrEP and adult male circumcision,” said Ms Havlir. “My message to policy-makers around the entire world is this—invest in science, invest in the epidemic, you will save lives.”

Kathleen Sebeluis, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, focused her remarks on the domestic response to HIV and announced several innovative public-private partnerships to address the epidemic in the United States. “We are reminded over and over again that we need a collective response to turn the tide against HIV,” said Secretary Sebeluis. “That’s why we are making a new effort to reach out to community-based organizations, businesses, foundations, non-governmental organizations, and faith-based organizations to ask how we can work together.”

World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, spoke about the role of innovation in the response and how it helped improve service delivery in communities. “On the front lines of the 3 by 5 initiative, I saw daily how HIV implementers were generating innovative solutions to practical problems: from supply chain management to human resources,” said Mr Kim. “We’ll need more innovation in the years ahead to finish the fight against AIDS.”

Other guest speakers at the opening session included; Reverend Charles Straight, Pastor of the Faith United Methodist Church; Vincent Gray, Mayor of Washington, DC; Annah Sango, representative of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS; Barbara Lee, Member of the U.S. House of Representatives; Mark Dybul, former U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator; and Kgalema Motlanthe, Deputy President of South Africa. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed delegates via a video message.

A cultural programme preceded the opening featuring the presentation of the inaugural amfAR/IAS Elizabeth Taylor Award by American actress Sharon Stone and a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC.