Angela Wahl, PhD, is a Research Assistant Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the UNC School of Medicine. She specializes in HIV research. She attended the International AIDS Society meeting in Durban, South Africa, in July and shares her reflections of the conference.
As a basic scientist in the HIV field, I am fully aware that young women living in resource poor countries like South Africa are at the center of the HIV epidemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, over half of all HIV-infected individuals are women and HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death in young women. Young women in South Africa are particularly susceptible to HIV infection due to culture and gender inequalities. While I often cite these facts in manuscripts and grants, it’s not my everyday reality. I have been privileged to grow up and live in the United States, a country with laws that protect the rights of women and a culture that, for the most part, tries to treat women equally. For me, attending the International AIDS Society (IAS) AIDS 2016 conference in Durban, South Africa, this year was not only an opportunity to present my research, it was an opportunity to learn more about the young women that are at the forefront of the HIV epidemic.
IAS AIDS conferences are unlike any other conferences that I have attended. Usually the most provocative moments at conferences involve presentations of controversial data but at IAS AIDS conferences it’s not uncommon for protesters to take over the stage. This year, I was particularly struck by a group of young African women that took the stage as the Minister of Health of South Africa began to introduce a speaker. Their goal was to draw attention to the alarming number of young girls in South Africa that miss school every week because they don’t have access to sanitary napkins. In addition, they demanded increased access to condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV to young women. Another morning I sat in a large room with thousands of other conference attendees and when the speaker asked those who are taking antiretrovirals in the audience to raise their hand, both women sitting on either side of me raised their hands with tears in their eyes.
The concern for the young women of South Africa and their increased susceptibility to HIV infection was not lost outside of the conference center. After learning that I was attending the AIDS conference, my taxi driver explained to me how wealthier older men in Durban pressure young women into having condom-less sex after buying them gifts. This scenario was supported by data presented at the conference which revealed that young African women tend to acquire HIV from middle age men. He also told me about the young women from rural areas who move to large cities like Durban to become sex workers so that they can help feed their families back home.
Although this isn’t the first AIDS conference that I have attended, this year’s conference in Durban truly gave me a face for the HIV epidemic for the first time. It also gave me hope after seeing that there are young women in South Africa who are defying cultural norms and demanding reform that will help empower women to end the cycle of HIV infection and after meeting men who recognize the particular vulnerability of young African women to HIV.