It took a change in U.S. policy to bring the International AIDS Conference back to the United States for the first time since 1990.
What kind of meeting rates that level of influence? A big, loud, intensely participatory one.
You could interview everyone from the head of the local secretariat for the 19th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) to the event director at the convention center to the show's general contractor, to exhibitors and delegates and other participants, and they would all tell you about the threads of activism and passion and simple human emotion woven throughout the most famous quilt in the world.
But nothing could prepare you for the moment during AIDS 2012's opening session when a woman and her daughter took the stage at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. The mother's name was Florence Uche Ignatius. She was 34 years old and from Nigeria, and had been HIV-positive for the last 14 years. Her daughter, Ebube Francais Taylor, was 13 and HIV-free. They were both at AIDS 2012 for the same reason: to say thank you, in person, to the people of the United States.
In that they were not alone. Florence and Ebube were introduced by Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, who praised the United States for its "compassion, generosity, and solidarity" in battling AIDS around the world. When it was Florence's turn to speak, she said: "I am alive today and on treatment because of you, the American people. You have helped so much. But believe me, millions are still out there, waiting for treatment. That is why we are here: to ask you not to stop."
Ebube followed her mother. "Because of [Florence's] love, because of the support of the American people, I was born HIV-free," said Ebube, poised and beautiful, her mother smiling proudly just behind her. "So I say thank you, Mom, and thank you, American people, for your support. Ö [But] I want all children, all children, to be born just like me, free of HIV. Every single one. Please, I am begging: Let us make this world an AIDS-free generation."
People wiped their eyes and looked at one another and shook their heads, and they applauded. The opening session continued for another hour. Then the meeting was declared open, and over the next five days, it became clear just how well Florence and Ebube had captured the heart of the profoundly human and humanizing International AIDS Conference.
The meeting hadn't been held in the United States since 1990, during the depths of the plague years, and in an interview with Convene a few weeks before, Tiffany Gilliard, head of the local secretariat for AIDS 2012, had said: "It is my hope that people who aren't talking about HIV and AIDS will start to talk about it again. The stigma will be erased to some degree because this conference [will have] been so widespread. The media will cover it from various angles, from human-interest stories to real science stories. I just hope people are talking about HIV and AIDS again, at the fevered pitch they were talking about it 20 years ago."
Just by sharing their story, Florence and Ebube demonstrated why they must.
There is a very simple reason why the AIDS conference hadn't met in the United States for 22 years: The International AIDS Society (IAS), which organizes the biannual meeting, had forbidden it. In 1987, the United States enacted a ban on HIV-positive foreign visitors, and five years later, IAS decided that the conference would no longer be held in any country with such a policy. The last International AIDS Conference held in the United States was in San Francisco in 1990, and while the last two decades have seen AIDS transformed from an unstoppable scourge to a somewhat manageable epidemic, at least in the developed world, it's happened without the participation of the world's most popular destination for international association meetings.
But in October 2009, the Obama administration overturned the ban on HIV-positive visitors, finishing a process begun a year earlier by the Bush administration, and barely a month later, it was announced that AIDS 2012 would be coming not just to the United States but to Washington, D.C., which in addition to being the nation's capital claims its highest rate of HIV infection. "While the District of Columbia has many resources and is a beautiful tourism destination," D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said during the opening session, "it is also a city where HIV/AIDS has had a profound impact on the health of our citizens."
In a few different ways, the selection of Washington, D.C., felt like things were coming full circle. Before signing on with the local secretariat for AIDS 2012, Gilliard was director of sales for Destination DC, where she worked on the bid that brought the show to Washington. "It wasn't until the entry ban was lifted that we knew the U.S. could actually be a contender for this meeting," she said. "Once we knew the U.S. was a contender, that is when we put a full-court press on to bring it to D.C. So for me, it is very personal, because I have seen it from a bid all the way through."
Likewise, in an interview a few weeks before the conference, Gregory O'Dell, president and CEO of Events DC, which operates Walter E. Washington, was very aware of what AIDS 2012 meant for its host destination, at every level. "The other thing we're mindful of is, not only is this the first time [in decades] for Washington, D.C., [which hosted the conference in 1987,] but for the United States to host this," O'Dell said. "We're representing the country as well, and it's important to this organization."
But what made AIDS 2012 truly historic had everything to do with its mission, which is to serve as "the premier gathering for those working in the field of HIV, as well as policy makers, persons living with HIV, and other individuals committed to ending the pandemic." Ending the pandemic. This year, speaker after speaker talked about the viability of that very thing, preventing transmission, developing a vaccine, finding a cure. Scientists and activists alike are convinced that what seemed like a miracle 30 years ago is now within reach. "It is my profound hope," IAS President and AIDS 2012 International Chair Elly Katabira, M.D., a professor of medicine at Uganda's Makerere University College of Health Sciences, said during the opening session, "that this conference will send us on a path toward ending the epidemic and turning the tide."
The pitch of this recurring message of hope varied depending on who was speaking at the opening session. A few minutes after Katabira's remarks, Annah Sango took the stage. She was 24 and from Zimbabwe, and a member of the International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS. She registered optimism, but impatience and anger, too, wondering aloud why the global AIDS community comes together every two years only to ask the same questions. "Ask yourself," she said to her audience, "why are women [in the developing world] still stigmatized in terms of resources? "Why do women living with HIV face forced sterilization? Ask yourself again, why are we still delaying basic sex education? " It is time to make waves. We need to look with new eyes at old problems."
And that's what makes the International AIDS Conference so different. Rigorously scientific at its core, Katabira estimated that 70 percent of the sessions at AIDS 2012 would discuss new research findings, the meeting serves an agenda shaped in large part by a vocal, hands-on, historically angry activist community that was responsible for dragging the issue into the light when the world was largely ignoring it. It's their conference as much as it's the scientists', the patients', the families', and the aid workers' conference.
So how do you put together a program that serves all of them?
"All of your shows, you learn something. But this of any show, if it's coming to your city, if you don't go see it [in advance], you