AIDS Conference takes Center Stage in D.C.

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

Sidibe 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, Sidibe 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, Sidibe 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.