> Bay Area Reporter > 20 July 2000

AIDS Conference Concludes in Durban
by Bob Roehr

Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, electrified the closing session of the 13th International Conference on AIDS last Friday, July 14 with his mere presence. He entered to a sustained standing ovation, complete with cries in Zulu and other dialects of the region, and chants from the struggle to end apartheid.

He looked frail but his ringing voice belied his 82 years and offered a capstone of hope that the attendees had been seeking. "If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact upon the way people live or die," said Mandela on the conference theme of "Break the Silence."

He did not directly mention the controversy surrounding President Thabo Mbeki's embrace of AIDS denialists or the substance of those issues, both of which dominated discussion and news coverage of the conference. Mandela called them a distraction "from the real life and death issues." He praised Mbeki several times during the course of his speech.

Mandela said that "the ordinary people" and especially "the poor who bear a disproportionate burden of this scourge Ö wish that the dispute about the primacy of politics or science be put on the back burner and that we proceed to address the needs and concerns of those suffering and dying. And this can only be done in a partnership."

He called upon the tradition of collective leadership in Africa. "In the face of the grave threat posed by HIV/AIDS, we have to rise above our differences and combine our efforts to save our people," he said. "History will judge us harshly if we fail to do so now, and right now."

Mandela outlined the need for programs that work to "banish stigma and discrimination," prevent new infections, offer treatment, and support the survivors. He specifically supported "measures to reduce mother-to-child transmission," an action resisted by the South African government. Those words generated one of the many bursts of applause.

"Others will not save us if we do not primarily commit ourselves," said Mandela, but that did not negate the need for support and alliances both within societies and from without. He concluded, "Let us combine our efforts to ensure a future for our children."

"You cannot imagine how your speech is music to our ears," said conference chair Jerry Coodavia. "It has answered so many unspoken and spoken questions on our lips. It has filled the torment in our hearts." He pledged, on behalf of scientists, that they would do their part.

Assessing the Conference

"I've been coming to this meeting since 1988 and this is by far the best International AIDS Conference that I've ever been to," said David Barr, an AIDS advocate from New York. "It is the first time that a whole new set of issues have been raised concerning how health care is provided." That includes the roles of industry, government, and "what things cost."

Pulitzer Prize-winning AIDS journalist Laurie Garrett called the conference "a huge turning point" in dealing with "access to care, inequity in north-south relations, the whole agenda of how can HAART [highly active antiretroviral therapy] get to everybody."

"There is clear evidence of a major political shift," said Bill Arnold, with the ADAP Working Group in Washington, D.C. "Clearly industry has gone through a whole bunch of behind closed doors type decisions" about how they are going to meet the call for access to therapy for the poorer nations.

"It was tremendously important to come here and see the face of AIDS as it affects most of the world," said David Scondras, a Boston activist who also was appointed by President Mbeki and serves on the South African AIDS Commission. He is encouraged by the movement to forge the types of partnerships of government, industry, and community people necessary to confront the epidemic.

"When we chose South Africa, many, many expressed their concerns, particularly those who are not with us today," said Stefano Vella, incoming president of the International AIDS Society which organized the conference. "But this conference proved that they were wrong."

"This is a conference where we should have brought our children, because it is our commitment to teach future generations to fight HIV and AIDS," said Vella.

Among the Missing

New York activist Mark Harrington singled out some of the missing for special criticism. "There is a real 'Mafia' that controls not only the ACTG [U.S. AIDS Clinical Trails Group] but they control the retrovirus conference [which meets in January in the U.S.]. And guess what, they're not here," he said. He works with the Treatment Action Group and is the recipient of a five-year MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant for his work in AIDS advocacy.

"Chip Schooley didn't come and neither did Connie Benson, or Doug Richmond," said Harrington, naming three of the leading researchers and administrators. "I think that is a little bit of a 'fuck you' to the rest of the world, particularly to the developing world," he continued. "They have the largest clinical trials infrastructure in the world and they didn't even bother coming to see. I think that is a little rude."

"How can Paul Volberding not be here?" cried another advocate, who asked not to be quoted by name. The University of California at San Francisco researcher is editor of the leading peer review journal JAIDS.

Cornelius Baker took a different tact, "The reality is that there is no one not here that we couldn't live without. The people who are here are the people who are very much committed to the future of this epidemic, which means really ending it in every corner of the world."

"If 90 percent of the people have either no access to the drugs or the drugs are not useful to them in their part of the world, then we are producing useless science," Baker continued. The former executive director of the National Association of People With AIDS and current head of the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, one of the largest AIDS services organizations in the U.S., said, "The world that mattered was here."

The IAS also announced that they would begin sponsoring a conference on HIV pathogenesis and treatment to be held in alternate years. Unlike the Durban conference, which included social sciences and community leaders, it will focus only on science. The first will be next July in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The U.S. retroviral conference was established when IAS moved from an annual to a biennial frequency. While Vella denied there was any formal competition with the January meeting, there was an undercurrent of unhappiness with the American dominated event. Plus, its capped enrollment has meant that hundreds of people have been turned away from participating over the last few years.

David Barr thought that the science-only focus of the new meeting was "really a mistake. What we should be doing is convincing the biomedical scientists to come back in to this meeting rather than give them even more reason to divorce themselves from it."


webmaster's postscript:
There is increasing public objection to the venue of the International AIDS Conference selected to be in Toronto Canada in 2004.


May 2001 Breaking News:


The International AIDS Society is pleased to announce that the XV International AIDS Conference has been moved from its original planned location in Toronto (Canada) to Bangkok, (Thailand).

The final decision was taken during the IAS Governing Council Retreat Meeting, (May 12, 2001) after a process which carefully reviewed the logistical, organizative and scientific requirements, and after consultation with the conference co-organizers, UNAIDS, ICASO, GNP+ and ICW.

In 2000, IAS brought the International AIDS Conference to Durban, South Africa.

"Break the Silence" was the theme of the conference.

And, indeed, the silence was broken, Durban representing a turning point in the international fight against AIDS, with increasing difficulties for political leaders in Africa and elsewhere in the South to remain silent and complacent, but also for their counterparts in the North to deny efficient support. Nobody will be able to stop the process that started there and which will bring more HIV prevention and care to the South.

This is the reason why IAS decided to move the XV Conference from the North to the South of the world, to yet another epicenter of the epidemic. HIV/AIDS concerns the whole world: if we do not globally address the catastrophe, the spread of HIV during the next decade might be even more rampant in Asia and the Pacific than what has happened to date in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the estimation of WHO and UNAIDS, Asia - being home to more than one-third of the world population and harboring more than one-fourth of the world's new HIV infections - is potentially facing a devastating spread of the epidemic.

The next international Conference will take place in Barcelona, in July 2002, and the subsequent conference was already scheduled to take place, in 2004, in Toronto, Canada. We should therefore acknowledge the great sensitivity of the IAS Immediate Past-President Mark Wainberg, who was the appointed Chair of the 2004 Conference and who proactively supported the decision to move the conference. We also want to acknowledge and thank the Toronto Convention Center, who kindly allowed IAS to postpone the Toronto conference.

"Asia offers lessons learned on local responses for a large range of interventions in prevention and control of HIV. In most of Asia, there are examples of excellent HIV/AIDS prevention and care projects and of major international research collaboration. Choosing Thailand as a venue for conducting the XV International AIDS Conference will serve to further highlight the crucial need for action and response to the epidemic in countries in the developing world", according to Dr. Somsong Rugpao, Director General, Department of Communicable Disease Control, Ministry of Public Health, Thailand.

The 2004 Bangkok AIDS Conference will be organized by the IAS and the Thai Ministry of Public Health in collaboration with UNAIDS and with ICASO, GNP+ and ICW.

We look forward of working together with you, to make the Bangkok Conference another milestone in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Stefano Vella MD, President
International AIDS Society

Stockholm Secretariat: +46 8 459 66 21 E-mail: secretariat@ias.se - IAS Rome Branch: +39 06 4461400 E-mail: ias.share@flashnet.it Direct e-mail: stefanovella@interbusiness.it

see:  Bangkok 2004 AIDS Conference Reports

see also:

When PWAs first sat at the AIDS Conference Table
Montreal AIDS Conference 1989

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