Friday 19 Jul 2019 | 18:45 | SYDNEY
Friday 19 Jul 2019 | 18:45 | SYDNEY

The 17th International AIDS Conference


Bill Bowtell

22 August 2008 10:19

I’m back in Sydney from the 17th International AIDS Conference held in Mexico City. International AIDS conferences are as far removed from earnest, worthy and dull scientific conferences as it is possible to imagine.

While serious science is still reported at these conferences, they are also a coming together of the international HIV/AIDS political movement that has done so much over two decades to forge a global consensus on how the HIV pandemic must be managed, contained and eventually reduced.

Over the two decades I have attended these gatherings, the once po-faced scientists have gradually become more adventurous, radical and willing to embrace the new models of public health developed by those closest to the HIV pandemic; while the radical activists have become more sober, mainstream and respectable as their once fiery and well-justified critiques of systemic policy failures have prevailed and been incorporated into policy development.

A powerful marker of how much has changed was the passage through the United States Congress (just before the Mexico conference opened) of bi-partisan legislation that removed the ban on HIV-positive people travelling to the United States and increased US government HIV/AIDS funding under PEPFAR by some $US40 billion.

As is only proper, activists at the Conference wasted no time in celebrating this milestone, but instead called on both Senators Obama and McCain to scrap US opposition to needle and syringe programs and continuing support for abstinence education and other failed HIV prevention strategies.

At Mexico, there was a welcome refocusing of the need to greatly enhance prevention education, particularly directed at gay men, sex workers, injecting drug users and other groups at high risk of HIV infection.

The collapse of HIV vaccine trials did not, of course, cause any great introspection on the part of the scientists or the drug companies, who volubly called for even more and bigger research grants to support their quest for the Holy Grail of cures and vaccines.

But if there was one thing I took away from Mexico: it is that behavioural prevention is effective, cheap and our best and surest shot at reducing and containing the pandemic most especially in our own region and the south Pacific.