Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Global Health Policy Center
From July 22 to 27, 2012, Washington, DC will host the nineteenth international AIDS conference, known as AIDS 2012, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Since the first international AIDS conference was organized in Atlanta in 1985, the sessions have evolved from modestly-sized gatherings of scientists meeting to discuss research questions over a few days to week-long conventions attracting over 20,000 participants, including heads of state, celebrities, activists, journalists, philanthropists, researchers, and people living with HIV/AIDS. Today the international AIDS conferences, organized by the Geneva-based International AIDS Society (IAS), are the largest meetings devoted to a single global health topic in the world. The AIDS 2012 conference theme, “Turning the Tide Together,” reflects organizers’ recognition that in 2012 the global AIDS community finds itself at a unique juncture: research advances have made it possible to envision an end to the epidemic at the precise moment when funding challenges threaten to slow progress on scientific discovery and program implementation.
Although the conference was held in the U.S. three times between 1985 and 1990, it has been 22 years since the meeting was held on U.S. soil. In 1987 HIV/AIDS was added to the list of infectious diseases that could prevent a traveler from receiving a U.S. entry visa. Following protests over the visa exclusions at the 1990 international AIDS conference in San Francisco, meeting organizers agreed that future sessions would not be held in the U.S. as long as HIV infected travelers were not welcome. President Obama’s October 2009 lifting of the HIV “immigration ban” paved the way for a U.S.-hosted meeting for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century.
A great deal has changed since the conference was last held in the United States. The epidemic’s locus has shifted from the U.S. and Europe to developing countries; today the majority of new HIV cases are reported in sub-Saharan Africa. Pharmaceutical innovations, such as highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART), have made infection with HIV manageable for many patients, changing an AIDS diagnosis from the death sentence it was in the 1980s and early 1990s to a chronic condition – at least for those who can access the lifesaving medications. The last fifteen years have seen the coalescence of a robust international response to the global epidemic, including the rise of bilateral and multilateral funding commitments by donor governments and the development of a global advocacy community dedicated to addressing HIV/AIDS challenges worldwide. And the U.S. has become a leading funder for international HIV/AIDS programs through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But with the sustainability of many donor countries’ overseas assistance commitments in question thanks to current financial challenges, the AIDS 2012 meeting in Washington offers an important opportunity for the global AIDS community to discuss research progress, assess program achievements, and reaffirm political and financial commitments.
In the summer of 2011 the CSIS Global Health Policy Center organized a senior advisory group known as Friends of AIDS 2012. Acknowledging the significance of the conference’s return to the U.S., the group, chaired by Global Health Policy Center Director J. Stephen Morrison, assembles a diverse collection of AIDS experts to share suggestions with the conference organizers regarding ways to strengthen the impact of the July 2012 meetings and to stimulate the American public’s interest in the conference issues. The CSIS Global Health Policy Center is pleased to present a video featuring the perspectives of many of the participants in the Friends of AIDS 2012 group, as well as the insights of government officials, private sector representatives, advocates, and program implementers who have been long-time conference participants. A consistent theme is the importance of the international AIDS conferences in provoking new research questions, energizing civil society engagement on policy issues, shoring up political will to address HIV/AIDS challenges, and encouraging the commitment of funds towards program activities in the neediest settings.
CSIS will follow this video with a longer report on the history and politics of the international AIDS conferences, to be released in March, and a public event on March 28, at which panelists will discuss the conferences in historical and political perspective.