By Laura Keegan
This past month I was lucky enough to have been awarded support from Muttart Foundation to attend the International AIDS Conference held in Amsterdam. It was an overwhelming, frustrating, thought provoking and inspiring 6 days. So much to take in and it’s taking some time to digest all that went on. The theme of the conference, AIDS 2018, was “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges” which took a while for me to resonate with to be honest. As you will read, it didn’t always feel that we were doing much of either. With 16,000 delegates from more than 160 countries, this is the biggest event in global health and here is just one delegates observations!
It was a conference without a lot of celebration as we absorbed a tough reality check. There were 1.8 million new HIV infections in 2017 and over 900,000 deaths, which they used all over Amsterdam as it is the population of Amsterdam… and Edmonton! Let that sink in. The real story of the HIV epidemic, which was discussed heavily throughout the week is that the epidemic is in a crisis. Distressing spikes in new HIV among adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa and in drug users across Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia met with a drop of over $3 billion in funding between 2012-2017. This is not getting to Zero.
There were some big announcements that were both highlights as well as shining a light on where we have failed. Such is the statement in the Journal of International AIDS Society from the top HIV scientists challenging criminalization of non-disclosure. This which brought Canada firmly in the limelight as being rather than a beacon of hope (as we should be), a fire burning filled with ignorance, stigma and a continual undermining of efforts to fight HIV. Our Minister of Health Ginette Petitpas Taylor received huge applause for her statement of support of the UequalsU science and even wore a UequalsU t-shirt… but the question I have… and most Canadians should have for her is how is she going to bring that message home to change the laws, properly fund HIV programming and push for prevention technologies such as PrEP?
The Partner 2 study results were officially released on the Wednesday of the conference to much applause and added fuel to the building movement of UequalsU- Undetectable equals Untransmittable! This study confirmed that when an HIV positive person is on treatment and has sustained an undetectable viral load, they cannot onward transmit the virus sexually. This has been proven now in both heterosexual and men who have sex with men. It is undisputed science that all of us activists are hoping can help challenge the stigma!
A much anticipated announcement that has potential to make some real strides was the launch of The powerhouse advocate team of Prince Harry and Sir Elton John made the much anticipated announcement of their latest venture, the creation of MenStar, which will be putting over $1 billion into prevention of HIV specifically in men. This, in turn, can have the largest impact on changing the growing epidemic in women and girls!
There were some powerful speakers and some sobering statistics. A few that stood out for me were these:
“We have not truly helped a child if we treat her for HIV, but do not vaccinate her against measles. We have not truly helped a gay man if we give him PrEP but leave his depression untreated … Universal health coverage means ensuring all people have access to all the services they need, for all diseases and conditions,” WHO Director General- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
The ambitious campaign to “end AIDS” by 2030 is badly off track a number of officials stated throughout the conference and many countries can’t or won’t mount aggressive responses- “We will not be able to meet the prevention goal- We have a prevention crisis” Director UNAIDS- Michael Sidibe
The closing ceremonies brought sex worker activists into the forefront as they interrupted President Bill Clinton’s closing statements. The International AIDS conference is a place for dissent, political activism and… breaking down the barriers. It is welcome, expected and encouraged to have protests and interruptions for the political to be brought to light. However it didn’t escape my thoughts that although I agreed with what they were fighting for- a change from the San Francisco venue for the 2020 conference due to the inhumane actions and continued bad policies that would make it near impossible and if possible, unsafe for many to attend under Trump’s tyrannical government. I didn’t agree that they were attacking an ally- And Clinton is an ally. With some powerful words he returned to the podium to state that the “only pro-life answer (he) knows is to save as many lives as possible” and stating that people have become comfortable (with treatment etc) and so believe it is over but “35 people will die while I’m up here talking”. Pause to let that sink in.
In closing I am going to steal a quote and a question from the outstanding Mercy Ngulube for all who are reading this and for all people who are working and supporting the HIV movement which is “We are all going to build bridges this week…but where is your bridge going to lead us? Don’t let your bridge be a bridge to nowhere”.