As caravans of activists, scientists, celebrities and medical academics descended on Washington DC last night for the first International AIDS Conference to be held in the United States for twenty two years, there was dismay among some that the man who might have been the biggest turn, Barack Obama, was not planning to attend.
A five-day ruckus of lectures, seminars and presentations opened yesterday with the unfurling of the original AIDS quilt on the Washington Mall and a march by thousands of protestors anxious to remind attendees of the conference as well as governments that the work to contain the epidemic is far from done.
Yet, as the first session began last night, the mood was one of cautious optimism as reflected in the conference’s theme, ‘Turn the Tide Together’. While the search for vaccines and beyond that a cure continues, most of the emphasis here this week will be on ‘treatment as prevention’, which holds that the more you deliver anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive patients, returning their immune systems to health, the less the disease will be spread further.
Keeping Mr Obama away from the conference – he will address it by video - was surely a political calculation. While a warm welcome would have awaited him inside the hall, it probably would not have done his re-election bid any good. Levels of ignorance among American voters about the science of AIDS and the diminishing stigma attach to it remain high, polls show.
There will be missed opportunities in Mr Obama’s absence. As the first black president of the US and as a man born of a Kenyan father, he could have spoken for the ethnic minority in the US - African Americans - and the region of the world - sub-Saharan Africa - which have been disproportionately hit by the disease. He might also have been an ambassador for his own adopted home town; about 6.3 per cent of black men in Washington are HIV positive, compared to 6.5 per cent for Uganda. More than 3 per cent of all the city’s residents over 12 years are infected.
The irony, of course, is that the conference, which happens every other year, would never have returned to the US were it not for the decision by Mr Obama in 2009 to repeal regulations approved during the second term of Ronald Reagan that barred HIV-positive individuals from entering the United States and thus attending meetings.
Indeed the history of US representation at the AIDS conferences is hardly a happy one. No US president has ever attended. When then Vice President George H.W. Bush tried to address the 1987 conference also in Washington – the year the first patches of the quilt were put together and the terror of the disease had truly taken hold – he was booed and heckled. He was heard muttering as he left the stage, “Who was that, some gay groups out there?”
The mood is different now and will be lifted this week by the presence here of advocate celebrities including Sir Elton John and Whoopi Goldberg. Sir Elton is due to speak this afternoon. Meanwhile a gala dinner at the Kennedy Centre on Saturday night hosted by amFAR honoured Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft whose Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has given $2.5 billion in AIDS research grants around the world.
He told the gala guests that the fight is not over. “We need to invent a vaccine,” Mr Gates announced after being introduced by Sharon Stone, the actress and AIDS activist. “We need to keep the funding levels going up. We need to grow out new prevention tools. There are still millions of people being affected.”