04 August 2008

Acción universal ¡Ya!

So, as the more astute of you have figured out, I'm not actually in Mexico City looking for the Fountain of Emo, I am here, of course, because of AIDS 2008, the XVII International Aids Conference, held every two years and running for the next week. The conference brings together the global community of health practitioners, researchers, academics, scientists, policy makers, activists and, most importantly, people living with HIV/AIDS, to discuss, examine and address all aspects of current thinking on this global pandemic.

I am here very much as an observer (this not being my field of expertise at all) as part of an ongoing effort to educate myself on the wider and more serious issues affecting the global community (and after emerging from the isolating bubble of the web 2.0 world four months ago). Having just returned from Ethiopia where I went to see the effects of the global food crises first hand (and was really surprised by what I found), this week focuses on a global approach to a crisis rather than witnessing purely local solutions. The link between this trip and the last is a series of meetings we had with sex workers in Ethiopia living with HIV/AIDS, who had set up a women's collective movement to provide support, peer education, empowerment and, through a collectively managed organic farm, a means of self-sufficiency and a route out of sex-work. It was pretty inspirational to talk to these women, have coffee with them and hear their voices. It also has the huge effect of putting a very human face on the work that everyone around me at this conference is doing.

Last night was the opening ceremony of the conference. Over 20,000 delegates are attending, and most of them seemed to fill the massive Auditorio Nacional for over four hours to see a mixed program of cultural performances (dancing, mariachi, giant carnival heads and 'day of the dead' costumes) and key note addresses from conference organizers, the Mexican Secretary of Health, Dr Peter Piot (Head of UNAIDS and something of a rock star in the HIV/AIDS world), Festus Gontebanye Mogae (the former president of Botswana), Margret Chan (head of the WHO), Spanish Vice President María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Denzil Douglas (Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis), Felipe Caulderon (Mexican President) and Ban Ki-Moon (UN Secretary General, pictured above).

The theme of the conference is 'Universal Action Now' - one of the UN's Millennium Development Goals is to "achieve, by 2010, universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS for all those who need it", but according to most of last night's speakers in the last 2 years we have actually moved further away from achieving this goal. Many looked to this conference as a rallying point to get things back on track, though few were optimistic.

There were calls to end prejudice and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and at-risk groups such as women and girls, men who have sex with men, sex workers, intravenous drug users and migrants. There was much talk of the battle for resources, and refutations of the allegations that AIDS/HIV research funding takes away badly needed resources from other health crises. There were admonishions directed at the pharmaceutical industry for price fixing and profiteering (not without considerable merit, at breakfast this morning I was surrounded by about twenty staff from one pharma giant toasting themselves with champagne, anti-retrovirals are clearly a boom business bucking the trend of the global recession). There was also much talk of the need to hear the voices of those living with HIV/AIDS, and to include them in all parts of the fight.

However, if you look at the list of speakers at the opening ceremony, there was distinct lack of voices being heard. Politicians dominated the proceedings, and only two speakers spoke on behalf of those living with HIV/AIDS, Mony Pen, a Cambodian activist, and Keren Dunaway-González, a twelve year-old teenage girl from Honduras who spoke of her parents fight against the disease, her own life with HIV, and her simple desire to grow up and experience all the things a typical girl her age will experience. Her moving account brought the entire auditorium to its feet, the only ovation of the evening, and a sure sign that regardless of what platitudes the politicians regurgitate, the global AIDS community knows why they are here this week.

AIDS 2008 Conference site
Photos from the opening ceremony


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