AIDS 2006 conference closes with “challenge”

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The XVI International AIDS Conference closed late Friday, with Dr. Vincent Idemyor commenting that the challenge is “to translate the information that we’ve gathered into action on the ground.”

Dr Idemyor told the radio station Voice of America that the conference “should have (been) delivered five years ago. But I guess we can still do something to ensure that we deliver now.”

The conference opened its 6 day programme on Sunday, 13 August, in Toronto, Canada, with the theme ‘Time to deliver’.

There were over 26,000 participants from more than 170 countries in attendance.

This is the second time that the conference has been held in Canada, it cannot be held in the USA because they refuse to provide visas to those diagnosed with HIV.

Conference co-chair, and outgoing President of the International AIDS Society (IAS), Dr. Helene Gayle told “Despite important momentum over the past few years, the slow pace of progress has led to growing impatience. My hope is that we will use what we’ve learned here in Toronto to strengthen the global response.”

The International AIDS conference combines both sciencitific study and social work in its programme, though according to Idemyor it has allowed the social element to dominate the meeting until now for the past few years.

Studies heard at the conference include those looking at increases in AIDS infection in prison population, especially in some former Soviet countries such as Ukraine, as reported last week in Pink News.

AIDS 2006 also hosted celebrity presentations, including the the two Bills (Gates and Clinton), with both Bill and Melinda Gates challenging the rich to donate for research.

Medical improvements include pivotal research released showing a new HIV drug called MK-0518, developed by Merck and Co., that works faster in some patients and targets a different pathway than current antiretroviral therapies.

The drug is currently in the final stages of testing.

The need for education and prevention, as much as post infection medical care, has been a constant part of the programme, with a great deal cultural and community presentations and shows.

“This conference cannot be deemed a success unless we collectively realize our theme of Time to Deliver,” said Conference Co-Chair Dr. Mark Wainberg, Local Host Board Chair and Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre. “Progress cannot be achieved if more people become infected by HIV each year than the numbers that are able to access treatment.”

At the end of 2005 the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimated 39 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS, the majority in developing countries. Last year 4.1 million people became infected, and 2.8 million died of AIDS-related illnesses.

Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy to Africa for HIV/AIDS who relinqueshes his post later this year, spent the entire week attending meetings and spoke at the end of the conference highlighting the need for policies to be inclusive of women, and how gender inequality is harmful to these aims.

“I challenge you my fellow delegates to enter the fray of gender inequality.”

“All roads lead from women to social change, and that includes subduing the pandemic.” Lewis told the conference.

He also hailed South Africa as “the only country in Africa whose government continues to propound theories more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state,” according to the Toronto Star.

Despite applauding the aims of the conference, and the way it was conducted, Dr Idemyor said of the title “I think we’re a little bit behind.’

“I see a very good balance. We are coming back to it. Scientists are impressed with the conference in terms of scientific content. The people in the civil society are also impressed. So, there’s a good balance. It’s a step forward.”

The next host of the biennial conference will be Mexico city in 2008.