Tuesday, 26 July 2016

#AIDS2016 – Where do we go from here?


After an intense week of deliberations, the 21st International AIDS Conference had to come to an end on July 22. Days began as early as 7am and some didn’t end until 11pm – with some delegates starting their days with satellites and ending them with strategy/networking meetings. The activists, among, other things used their early morning and late nights to plan protests and to strategize on how to make their time together count and to make their voices on issues such as social justice, equity, human rights and funding among others.

I took time to speak with some delegates to get a feel of their conference experience. Below are their reflections:

What are you taking away with you from the conference?

“AIDS 2016 has showed us that we’ve done extremely well in generating implementable science,” said AIDS 2016 Co-Chair and CEO of the South African Human Sciences 
Research Council (HSRC), Dr. Olive Shinana. “We’ve for instance done extremely well on the issue of elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV and with treatment for adults. Who would have imagined that today 17 million people would be accessing treatment? But I’m concerned that at the same time we’re seeing such important gains, funding is going down. If we don’t see more funding commitments, I worry that the gains we’ve made will be limited or even reversed,” Dr. Shinana added.

“I was yearning for something new, but I didn’t really get it,” Kutlo Motlhobogwa, 29, of the Botswana Ministry of Health observed. “We got lots of updates on what we’ve been doing – and these were great, but I was hoping to see some new science. I was also hoping to hear more conversations about such issues as sexuality, erectile dysfunction, infertility etc but these weren’t adequately covered. In addition to this, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) was talked about a lot at the conference, but I didn’t hear as much about how it will be delivered,” added Ms. Motlhobogwa. 

“A space like the Global Village where community people, scientists, funders and even the public can interact is exceptionally important. The Networking Zones provide opportunities for collaboration, interactions, interest exchange and maybe even future business for others,” said Manu Ndlovu, 39, artist and actor, South Africa.

On his part, Moyo Phakamani, 23, of the Pediatric AIDS Treatment for Africa (PATA) in Zimbabwe remarked, “We young people are at the frontlines of delivering prevention, treatment and support to our peers, but I didn’t see us at the driving seat of issues about us at the conference.”

“Our peers trust us, and we listen to each other on issues of sexual and reproductive health. They won’t listen to those old people who were presenting our issues on our behalf,” concluded Mr. Phakamani.

What is an immediate action you’re going to take as soon as you return home?

“PrEP is an intervention that works right now. Why wait for tomorrow to make it available to individuals at highest risk of HIV? PrEP is a potential game-changer in HIV prevention and its rollout needs immediate action,” said plenary speaker Dr. Carlos de Rio of the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

“I’ve been able to connect with other youth from different countries and networks,” said Noluthando Gxagxa, 23, of Pediatric AIDS Treatment for Africa (PATA) in South Africa. “Now I see the value of networking. I’ve learned about a peer-saving scheme at this conference and I’m going back home to help the young people from a network in Malawi to start one,” said an excited Ms. Gxagxa.

“We need to act immediately to address the gap in prevention and treatment services for adolescents. The conference has showed us more evidence that new infections are not going down among adolescents yet we’re making progress among other groups. We must do better to understand adolescents and to deliver services tailored to them,” said plenary speaker, Dr. Dorothy Mbori-Ngacha, 50+ years, Chief of the HIV Section at UNICEF Nigeria.

“Persons with disabilities weren’t so much on my radar until this conference,” Ms. Ndlovu confessed. “We must make more deliberate efforts to make it easy for persons with disabilities to fully enjoy and participate meetings like this. This should be an immediate action for the International AIDS Society,” concluded Ms. Ndlovu.

What are you going to do less of as a result of what you’ve heard at the conference?

“As a field, we must do less of congratulating ourselves about this so-called “End of AIDS”. That’s so George Bush-like,” said Dr. del Rio. “There’s a lot more work to be done and the more we focus our attention to this celebratory stuff, the more we get off the mark of what actually needs to be done – such as rolling out PrEP to those at highest risk,” added Dr. del Rio.

“My only issue is that there are clear divisions in the interactions of the different conference delegates – you see a lot of the young people and community-focused delegates in the Global Village and the ‘big shots’ at the plenaries and other big meeting rooms. We should see less of these divisions. I for one hope to go home and do a self-examination of the superficial divisions in our own programming, and hopefully start a journey of bridging them,” Ms. Ndlovu said. 

As for me, as exhausting and sometimes frustrating as the week was, I’m going home with hope – because of how much the field has achieved since the same conference was held in Durban in 2000; because of opportunity before us deliver treatment to all individuals who need it; because of the promise of interventions such as PrEP that, if delivered to individuals and groups that need it the most, could be game-changers; and because of the promise of other prevention options on the horizon in years to come such as microbicides, an effective vaccine and a cure. Everyone – roll-up your sleeves for it’s going to take a lot of hard work. 

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