The International AIDS Conference is a celebration of our successes, and there have been many. New tools for prevention have been discovered and developed, including pre-exposure prophylaxis, HIV treatment as prevention, which along with the social and behavioral interventions of education, condom promotion, and needle and syringe exchange, make achieving an end to the AIDS epidemic a possibility within reach. AIDS treatments, for which there are now more than 30 different medications, has proven to work over the long term. Tony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases mentioned that in the early days of the epidemic, he knew half of his young patients would be dead within a year or so. Now he can look his patients in the eyes and tell them that there is a high probability he will be seeing them for many years. For patients on antiretroviral treatment, HIV is no longer a death sentence but rather a manageable chronic infection.
But the conference is also a reminder of where and how far we have yet to go. Many presenters discussed the fact that we now have the science we need to see the end of the HIV epidemic. However, work remains to be done in order to most effectively deliver services that are needed to ensure that populations at risk of infection remain HIV free, and that all people already living with HIV discover their status and live long and healthy lives. The conference lays out the steps we need to take to overcome the obstacles and meet the challenges in our path. We are still in need of an effective vaccination and cure. We need to continue to develop new prevention technologies, like microbicides. We need to find new ways to more effectively get medicines and services to hard to reach populations, and we need to do this by listening to and including representatives of those populations in the design of interventions. And, at this moment when the end of the HIV epidemic is perhaps in sight, we need more funding – not less – to push us over the finish line. Notwithstanding this need, we also need to use the funds we have more efficiently.
Another thing the conference allows us to do is rekindle partnerships and rebuild our professional and HIV-related networks so that we can work together towards, and also update and redefine our goals, objectives, and strategies to win the fight against AIDS. There are over 20,000 participants at the conference. We are attending scientific and programmatic sessions. We are wandering through the exhibition halls and the global HIV village among international, non-government, community-based, government, and private sector organizations, community members, activists, artists, and performers all working on the HIV response throughout the world. We are presenting and viewing the thousands of posters showing the amazing work and latest findings of so many of the participants over the last two years. And, we are sharing coffee, tea, lunch, or simply a few minutes of time. It would be impossible not to feel the amazing source of energy and use the opportunity to network and find people with common and divergent interests; to stretch our minds to their limits so that as we return to our work when this week is done, we will do so with new ideas, innovations, partners, and friends.
Finally, in the paraphrased words of Elton John, spoken at the conference this week, AIDS the disease is caused by a virus, but AIDS the epidemic is caused by people. As such, it is people who can turn the tide on AIDS and with the right resources, tools, motivation, skills, and efforts, we will see the end of the AIDS epidemic.