AIDS Conference takes Center Stage in D.C.

Barrington M. Salmon | 7/25/2012, 10:42 a.m.

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 Sidibe, 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.