Too many stories to tell: report from the International AIDS Conference

You know what I would not want to be this week? A journalist covering the XIX International AIDS Conference.

The conference is massive; it is estimated that nearly 30,000 people will be in attendance; the program book runs some 440 pages (the supplement is another 96 pages); the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown Washington, D.C., is sprawling.

But the real “problem” is, there are just so many stories to tell: domestic HIV, global HIV, advocacy, awareness, patient stories, protests, policy, and of course, research.

8 of the 10 US states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses are in the South.

I’m thankful that my job is more or less limited to writing about UNC’s participation in this global conference. Still, though, that’s no small undertaking. UNC is represented on more than 100 abstracts.

One story that has been prominent on this, the first full day of the conference, is that the AIDS conference is back in the United States for the first time in 22 years. This was occasioned by President Obama lifting the entry ban on people infected with HIV (each time I heard this mentioned today, there was great applause).

There is clearly a lot of energy and enthusiasm around the return of the global AIDS conference to the US, and therefore a great deal of attention on domestic HIV.  In fact, as I walked up to the conference venue first thing this morning, I was handed special section of The Washington Post titled, “AIDS in America.” On the back was a full page advertisement from the Ford Foundation that read: “AIDS, it didn’t go away, it moved farther south.”

XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) Washington D.C. Plenary Session Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton © IAS/Ryan Rayburn

HIV in the South is the subject of a new documentary called deepsouth, and UNC’s Peter Leone served as a consultant on the film. As filmmaker Lisa Biagiotti explains it, “Peter helped me unlearn and unravel what I thought I knew about HIV.” Several special screenings of the film are scheduled this week in conjunction with the conference.

But although there was disturbing news about HIV in the South and about HIV prevalence among black gay and bisexual men (higher than we thought), there was hope, fueled by inspiring talks at the morning’s plenary session.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the conference and, as she first did last year on World AIDS Day, spoke of an AIDS-free generation. In her speech, she pointed to the example of Zambia, which happens to be the newest country in UNC’s global health portfolio, where the government has stepped up efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission, reducing new infections by half in just a few years. With additional funding from the US to expand programs in the country, Clinton said, new infections will go down and it will be possible to treat more people than are becoming infected each year.

“So we will, for the first time, get ahead of the pandemic,” she said. “And eventually, an AIDS-free generation of Zambians will be in sight.”

And if we can see an AIDS-free generation in Zambia, then we can believe it’s possible everywhere.

- Lisa

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