This will be the 22nd International AIDS Conference – and the second one to be held in Amsterdam.
The first, in 1992, had the theme A World United Against AIDS. It was organized at very short notice, in less than a year, following protests at the previous 1991 conference in Florence. These resulted in the Harvard AIDS Institute, the planned hosts of the 1992 conference, agreeing to activist demands and passing a resolution that “There will be no international AIDS conference in Boston next year unless all American travel and immigration restrictions against people infected with the AIDS virus are lifted.”
In the White House at the time was George H.W. Bush. This was the man who when vice-president was booed onstage at the 3rd International Conference on AIDS in Washington, DC. in 1987, and alongside President Reagan advocated for the expansion of mandatory HIV testing; so, it is hardly surprising that travel restrictions were not lifted – and Amsterdam organizations and the Dutch government stepped in as the host city. You can read the full story HERE.
Elizabeth Taylor and I (both pictured below), and some 9000 others attended the conference.
Whatever else these conferences are about – they are about people. So, to pay tribute to one person, of the many millions, who did not make it to the treatments that started to come online for some of us in 1996 here I will mention Jorge Mendoza Romero, who is in the centre of the picture. Born 1966 in Guadalajara, Jalisco, already at the age of fourteen, Jorge was co-founder of the first gay organization of Guadalajara, GOHL (Grupo Orgullo Homosexual Liberacion), and a fierce AIDS activist. He was killed by AIDS in 1995 and his ashes were scattered at the homomonument. You can read more about Jorge HERE. On the right is Ron Van Zeeland still working in the Dutch HIV and LGBT communities in the Netherlands and South East Asia.
Fittingly, considering the reasons why the conference was moved to Amsterdam, the focus of the conference was on human rights as a public health imperative. The Chair of the conference was Dr. Jonathan Mann. For more about this visionary leader, read more.
At the conference, he told delegates that an ‘updated vision’ of AIDS was needed for the 1990s. It was no longer an isolated health problem requiring a vaccine to cure it. “Overcoming poverty and discrimination are now central to the fight”, he said. “If societal inequity and discrimination fuel the spread of the pandemic – then to be effective against AIDS it would simply have to address these issues.” 25 years later we are still having to make these arguments!
For me, his speeches were one of the highlights of the conference. They firmly set the tone for all; seeing the linkages between health and human rights and bringing many more scientists on board as human rights advocates alongside people living with HIV and community activists.
Another highlight of the conference was the formation of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW) who took over the stage to bring the issues of women living with HIV to the center of the discussion. Their intervention caught the meeting by surprise – as all such interventions should. During an almost exclusively male opening plenary discussion woman from all over the hall stood up and declared: “Here we are! We have specific needs and we are going to defend our rights.” And then stormed the stage…
Liz Taylor also addressed the conference and opened an exhibition of the AIDS Quilt at a central Amsterdam location between Central Station and Dam Square in the old Amsterdam stock exchange the Beurs van Berlage.
I don’t know yet whether the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be on display at the conference, but it is perhaps a mark of how much we have moved on in the response to HIV that this same location will be used from July 22nd – August 2nd for an exhibition “I WILL SPEAK, I WILL SPEAK!”, organized by ATLAS2018. This is a unique exhibition with hundreds of films, photos and written stories of men and women who are living with HIV or AIDS from all over the world. It will be accompanied by speakers, yoga classes, a daily talk show, discussions, live recordings, parties and a showing every day of a specially commissioned documentary. See HERE for further information as well as other events they are organizing in the Conference’s Global Village.
In future blogs I will be highlighting what I think of as the ‘don’t miss’ events of the official conference, side events that are not part of the official programme, and things to do in Amsterdam and its surrounds while you are here. Oh, and I will be remembering some of my heroes in the response who have helped us get this far …
If you have any comments on this blog, please leave them below – or feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.