Ennis Jackson, Dr. Margo Simon and Jannis Evans are among the thousands of delegates in town for the first global AIDS conference in the District in 22 years.
They have joined more than 25,000 people from across the U.S. and around the world who will spend much of this week at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in downtown. Their excitement at the start of the conference Sunday evening was palpable.
Simon said it's fitting that the District of Columbia is once again hosting the largest gathering of scientists, researchers, people living with HIV/AIDS, activists, diplomats, philanthropists, elected officials and entertainers at the XIX International AIDS Conference.
"I'm here to be a part of a monumental conference for so many reasons," said Simon, a Bronx physician who practices family medicine and serves people living with HIV/AIDS. "It's such an exciting event with people united by their commitment to eliminating this excruciating disease. I have come as much for inspiration as knowledge."
Delegates and conference leaders spoke glowingly of their approval of President Barack Obama's lifting of the travel ban in 2009. They said now, the stigma of having the disease no longer prohibits those living with HIV/AIDS from coming to America and they call Obama's action a positive stroke for equality.
Jackson, 43, came as a representative of the Black Treatment Advocates Network in Oakland, Calif.
"The conference is very important because knowledge is power," said Jackson, who has lived in Oakland for the past nine years. "The more correct the information we have, the better our ability to fight the disease. There's a lot of misconceptions and misinformation all over the place. With all this new information and facts we can say no and correct what people think they know."
"There's enough information here for us to protect ourselves and others."
Thousands of delegates filled a cavernous auditorium on one of the convention center's upper floors and listened to a succession of speakers such as Deputy President of South Africa Kgaleme Motlanthe; California Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D); United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon; World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim; actress Sharon Stone; UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, Conference Co-Chairs Elly Katabira and Dr. Diane Havlir, and other luminaries.
The entire conference serves as the launching point for a renewed call to action. Under the theme, "Turning the Tide Together," conference leaders echo their belief that the end of the pandemic is in sight.
Almost 35 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and 2.5 million were infected last year, AIDS officials said.
"The challenge to all of us is never to go backwards regardless of the economic challenges," said Katabira. "These challenges will force us to make more efficient and effective use of available resources."
He said more people living with HIV/AIDS and others on the frontlines must be brought into the decision-making process and countries must also invest more than they presently do.
Havlir said maintaining the status quo is not enough. She estimates that 70 percent of individuals don't know their status, seven million are not receiving treatment and two million people die each year. She said increased testing, adult circumcision and an elevated delivery of health care are keys to curbing the disease.
Sidibé shared statistics and anecdotes about the striking progress countries, organizations and individuals all over the world have made. For example, eight million people are currently in treatment, the mortality rate is declining with 1.2 million people dying last year versus 1.8 million in 2005. Also, 80 percent of middle- and low-income countries raised their contributions to the AIDS effort by 20 percent and South Africa contributed $2 billion.
Quoting 19th century novelist Charles Dickens, Sidibé said the global AIDS community is seeing the best and worst of times. He cited as the "good times" the range of new and promising treatments that are now available, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEp, and old standbys such as antiretrovirals – which transformed AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic disease.
The worst of times, he explained, includes donor fatigue; the political, social and economic crises many parts of the world face; and the struggle people living with AIDS face because of the stigma, the prejudices, discrimination and criminalization of the disease.
But despite the myriad challenges, Sidibé said, the AIDS community is on the cusp of success.
"We are at a fork in the road to zero," he said. "All that can stop us now is indecision and lack of courage. It's decision time. The end of AIDS is not free, it's not too expensive, it's priceless."
Mayor Vincent C. Gray congratulated delegates for their role in the AIDS struggle and expressed his commitment to helping end the disease.
"HIV has had a profound impact on the city's culture, race, ethnicity, religion, sociology and economy," he said. "One million people have been infected nationally and in the past 20 years, 20,000 people have been infected in the city and 10,000 have lost their lives. I've shared the grief of losing friends to this disease but I have been buoyed by the spirit of determination of those who fight to end the disease."
Gray, 69, said health officials distributed five million male and female condoms in the city last year in hospitals, schools, clinics, government offices, "and even our churches."
Evans, a coordinator of African-American outreach programs in Jefferson City, Mo., said the HIV/AIDS landscape there mirrors the rest of the country, with black women exhibiting alarming rates of new infections, seniors contracting HIV and STDS and men having sex with men [MSM] causing equal concern.
"I hope to carry from here the hope to not have a job," she said. "To hear people talk about the end of AIDS is amazing. I will take back some of that spirit and be a part of the dream to make that a reality."
Annah Sango is a Zimbabwean peer educator who is living with AIDS. Her searing sincerity captured the crowd's attention.
"I stand here as a young woman living with AIDS in an exciting time," the petite 24-year-old said. "Even with the innovations, we have to examine our successes and failures and renew our commitment to turn the tide of this disease."
Sango said she is the voice for stigmatized sex workers and communities of the excluded and marginalized everywhere. Last year, she said, her colleague Waheeda Zabez El raised the same questions.
"I'm tired of repeating our hard-won answers," she said. "Why do so many of the old problems exist prohibiting women and girls from exercising their reproductive rights? HIV is the leading cause of death for women of child-bearing age. Women are marginalized from resources, exposed to physical and emotional violence."
What's missing from the AIDS solution equation is women, Sango asserted, and she challenged those within the sound of her voice to "search your souls and your minds to create an effective response."
"[Women] are not supported to be involved in the process. We must revolutionize the process. HIV flourishes where poverty and gender inequality are. ... Nothing for us without us," she concluded.