General Articles

2012 XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC

The XIX International AIDS Conference, the largest gathering of delegates working in the field of HIV/AIDS, kicked off July 22 in Washington, D.C. and ended July 27. Thanks to the lifting of a U.S. ban on HIV positive travelers in 2009[1], the conference was held in the United States for the first time in 22 years.[2] It drew roughly 24,000 people from 183 countries[3] and featured leading scientists, activists, and political figures such as President Bill Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, and UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé. Registration for the event cost anywhere from 150 USD for youth from a low or middle-income country to 1045 USD for a regular delegate from a high-income country.[4]
“Turning the Tide Together” was selected as the theme of this year’s conference. The phrase served as “an urgent call to action” and
reflects a unique moment in time, emphasising that the AIDS epidemic has reached a defining moment. By acting decisively on recent scientific advances in HIV treatment and biomedical prevention, the momentum for a cure, and the continuing evidence of the ability to scale-up key interventions in the most-needed settings, we now have the potential to change the course of HIV and AIDS.[5]
Today, treatment is available that allows people diagnosed with HIV to experience a near normal life expectancy. Immediately treating HIV reduces viral loads such that the rate of transmission through sex is decreased by as much as 96 percent according to studies.[6] Though researchers were cautious not to use the word “cure,” two studies presented at the conference certainly reignited the hope for a functional cure of AIDS in the near future.[7]
The conference made clear the question no longer is can we end AIDS but will we end AIDS. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading U.S. AIDS researcher, stated on the opening day “there is no excuse, scientifically, to say we cannot do it.”[8] For all the progress made, there are a staggering 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States and one out of five who are infected do not know their status.[9] Only about 28 percent of those infected will receive treatment and significantly reduce their viral loads.[10]
Social stigma, ineffective government policies, the lack of healthcare and AIDS education, and disregard for poor and marginalized populations most vulnerable to HIV are the real challenges left. Michel Sidibe, director of the United Nations AIDS program, commented, “it’s outrageous that in 2012, when we have everything to beat this epidemic, that we still have to fight prejudice, stigma, exclusion.”[11] Many of the activists at the conference expressed that “changing human belief and behavior is the most difficult problem” they face.[12] There are still people who believe sleeping with a virgin or sacrificing a goat will cure AIDS and challenging those cultural attitudes can be daunting.[13]
Excluded from this year’s conference were injecting drug-users and sex workers who protested their exclusion on several occasions. At a panel discussion on Wednesday, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was disrupted by a dozen protestors who marched to the front of the room with red umbrellas and chanted “sex worker’s rights are human rights.”[14] The activists were protesting the global AIDS initiative that treats more than 4 million people affected by HIV globally but excludes sex workers, a group highly affected by the virus.[15]
Getting treatment to the 34 million people worldwide with HIV is crucial to fighting AIDS. Doing so will cost 24 billion dollars annually, 7 billon more dollars per year than is currently being spent. Money has always been a serious issue in the fight against AIDS but according to Diane V. Havlir, co-chair of the conference, “this is the first time the financing seems achievable.”[16] The call for increased funding is more compelling than ever because treatment-as-prevention today saves expenses on future AIDS cases. If funding rose to 24 billion dollars per year, new cases of HIV would drop to under 1 million cases per year by 2020 according to UNAIDS epidemiologist Bernhard Schwartlander.[17]
In his remarks at the closing session on July 27, President Bill Clinton also addressed the case for increased funding and added the money needs to be spent more effectively and transparently. He concluded by stating, “all of you have created the possibility that we could have an AIDS-free generation. We just have to keep pushing the rocks up the hill.”[18]

[1]Darlene Superville, “HIV Travel Ban Lifted By President Obama,” The Huffington Post, 30 October 2009, accessed 27 July 2012, <

[2]Mark Johanson, “HIV Travel Restrictions In 46 Countries Opposed By Top CEOs At 2012 International AIDS Conference,” International Business Times, 24 July 2012, accessed 26 July 2012,

[3]David Brown and Lena H. Sun, “Money will turn tide on AIDS, conference attendees say,” The Washington Post, 27 July 2012, accessed 27 July 2012, <

[4]Website, accessed 26 2012, <>.

[5]“Turning the Tide Together: XIX International AIDS Conference,” World YWCA, 9 January 2012, accessed 26 July 2012, <>.

[6]“At critical turning point, International AIDS Conference aims to finally stem spread of virus,” Associated Press, 22 July 2012, accessed 26 July 2012, <

[7]David Brown, “AIDS research renews hope for a ‘functional cure’,” The Washington Post, 26 July 2012, accessed 26 July 2012, <

[8]“At critical turning point, International AIDS Conference aims to finally stem spread of virus,” ibid.

[9]“At critical turning point, International AIDS Conference aims to finally stem spread of virus,” ibid.

[10]Mike Gifford, “International AIDS Conference: more good news than bad,” JSOnline, 24 July 2012, accessed 26 July 2012, <!page


[12]Pamela Constable, “Heart of International AIDS Conference found in quiet moments of personal sharing,” Washington Post, 26 July 2012, accessed 26 July 2012,


[14]Curtis Tate, “Marco Rubio, other Republicans heckled by International AIDS Conference protesters,” McClatchy News Service, 26 July 2012, accessed 26 July 2012, <http://miamiherald.


[16]“Money will turn tide on AIDS, conference attendees say,” ibid.


[18]“AIDS conference's message: More treatment needed,” ibid.