This is my first time to Melbourne and to an International AIDS Conference and I am impressed by both. Melbourne has an energetic and attractive downtown along the river with narrow side streets home to outdoor restaurants and cafes. The Aussies don’t seem to mind eating outside in 50 degree weather, which I haven’t quite gotten used to yet. Along the river there is an appealing combination of glass high rise skyscrapers, green park space, pedestrian and bicycle boardwalk, and arts venues. One of the latter, the National Gallery of Victoria, has a very appealing public and display space with the main lobbying currently being occupied with life size statues of polar bears covered in brightly colored feathers.
Meanwhile, inside Melbourne’s massive convention center, 12,000 professionals, researchers, politicians, artists, and leading thinkers in the global fight against HIV are exchanging ideas and experiences and devising strategies to put an end to the epidemic everywhere, for good.
For a first timer at the conference, I have been struck by the emphasis on human rights and marginalized and underserved populations. I know this is not new but the level of emphasis for someone who doesn’t work in this field every day is striking. The statistics that I find the most troubling so far are the rates of infection among adolescent girls and young women, as many as 25% are infected in some places and that is 3 times as high as boys and young men of the same age. In that same vein, the most powerful display I saw in the global village was one from an advocacy group in South Africa fighting to raise the awareness of and stop the rape of young girls. They display infant garments and panties with red paint saying Stop Rape. The display, as intended, grabbed my attention and evoked a visceral response, giving me a new perspective on rape and gender-based violence–issues that are all too common throughout the world, but often unspoken about.
The field of HIV and its related health, social, and economic issues is vast; many of us who work in the field end up focusing on one aspect or another and don’t often get a chance to survey the entire landscape. This conference has been an incredible opportunity to do just that!