AIDS 2002 Barcelona: A Personal Perspective
I arrived in Barcelona on the first of July to take part in what was to be my first International AIDS Conference. The first thing to strike me was the heat and humidity. As a Nigerian studying in the UK, I had become quite used to the intemperate English climate. Arriving in Barcelona, the first blast of moist heat propelled me back to hot, humid Lagos.
I was volunteering on a pre-conference workshop for journalists organized by the National Press Foundation and the communications office of the conference. It was a great experience, interacting with journalists, activists and scientists from all over the world. It was interesting to see the different perspectives and dimensions to HIV/AIDS from the scientists angle, as well as the journalists', from the North to the South and so on.
I also realized that the weather was not the only thing Spain had in common with Nigeria. The inefficiency and bureaucracy made life very difficult for the workshop organizers. The sheer difficulty in getting someone who could speak English at several points made making very simple requests a complicated drama. For instance, a consignment of conference bags was held up at the airport by Customs allegedly because the declared value ($200) was too high! Watching Donna, Director of Operations for the National Press Foundation, working the phones to sort out this seemingly minor problem was almost hilarious.
She would ring the airport, and ask to speak to someone who could speak English. They would ask her to hold on, in Spanish, leave the phone for a few minutes and then drop it. After several attempts, an English speaker would be procured who would then give another number for the Customs desk. With the Customs desk, the same charade would be replayed and then another number for the courier company would be offered. And so on. It was amazing no one suffered a nervous breakdown. It was that frustrating.
The media workshop over, the conference proper began. Here again, I was volunteering in the PWA (Persons with HIV/AIDS) lounge, which was an extremely rewarding experience. Talking and interacting with PWAs of every nationality, age, gender, religion, profession and orientation brought home most vividly how truly global the HIV problem is.
In the lounge, I met many fellow Nigerians bravely living with HIV who had come to the conference to add their voices to others calling for universal access to antiretroviral treatment. It was a privilege to meet people like Georgiana Ahamefule, the first Nigerian to sue the employers who sacked her after discovering she was HIV positive. Similarly, meeting the very friendly and intelligent Judge Edwin Cameron of the South African Supreme Court, who is a symbol for PWAs everywhere, was an experience. There were of course less agreeable aspects to working in the lounge. The unavailability of a broad menu, the difficulty in accessing the lounge and poor logistics on occasion made the situation there sometimes difficult. However, the friendly, hardworking team of volunteers made the work easier.
The opening ceremony was, as expected, a spectacle. Held at the breathtaking Palau St. Jordi, it was preceded by a huge demonstration in favor of universal access to treatment. The presence of activists at the conference was very evident from the beginning and this resulted in the Spanish Minister of Health being steadily booed throughout the 10 odd minutes of her speech. Sadly at the end, she lost her temper and banged her fist on the lectern, which only produced more jeers. Apparently she was being booed for a less than efficient approach to HIV control in Spain and the difficulties experienced by many delegates in obtaining visas for the conference. The presence of the Infanta Elena, daughter of the King of Spain, did not deter the activists.
The strong visibility of activists developed further during the Conference with ACT UP Paris closing down some drug company stands, notably Roche and GlaxoSmithKline, for restricting or delaying universal access to lifesaving antiretroviral therapy. One was always being pressed to accept a sticker or badge supporting various viewpoints. Those that spring immediately to mind were the Terence Higgins Trust's "End the Ban" sticker opposing travel restrictions for HIV-positive people to the U.S., and the "Microbicides Now" lobby demanding greater research and investments into microbicides which would empower women. The World Council of Churches also protested the lack of a worship and meditation space at the conference.
Scientific meetings were many and varied and it was often difficult to choose which sessions to attend. The news on vaccines was cautiously promising, as were newer approaches to prevention. Brazil presented results from its antiretroviral program, effectively debunking the myth that such a program was impractical in a developing country setting. This became one of the recurring themes at the conference as speaker after speaker, including Peter Piot, UNAIDS director, urged global commitment for the funding required to make universal access to treatment a reality.
The plenary sessions were also thought provoking, at least the two I was able to attend. The speaker who made the most impression on me was Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, who painted a grim but vivid picture of the twin plagues of HIV and injecting drug use sweeping through her native Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. She called on the world to learn from the situation in Africa and act before it is too late. The poster displays were huge and it was difficult to take in more than a very little of what was on display, especially in the hot and humid Barcelona weather.
There were also receptions and launchings organized by various interest groups. I was particularly sad to miss the breakfast meetings of the African-American AIDS Policy and Training Institute which paraded a host of notable speakers, but they started at 6:30 every morning, and dinner in Barcelona tended to be at about 10:00 pm, making it very difficult.
Of course there was a very lively social and cultural program, and there were brilliant opportunities for networking. I was particularly pleased to meet many Nigerians active in the field, whose names I had been familiar with but had never met, and to meet many old friends and colleagues. We shared a few nights eating pounded yam and egusi soup at a Nigerian restaurant when the paella and other Catalan culinary delights became too much for us.
The closing ceremonies which featured Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton as lead speakers were soul stirring. Before the ceremonies started, some members of the South African delegation treated us to an impromptu, uplifting song and dance session. In the very left-of-center atmosphere that prevailed throughout the conference, Clinton and Mandela were very warmly received.
Clinton's speech ended with a chant of "Four more years" from a group of Americans sitting behind me as he spoke eloquently and passionately with his characteristic charisma. Some delegates wondered though why he had not done more for HIV while still in office. Mandela spoke with his characteristic deep wisdom, speaking out boldly in support of the conference themes but also advising a re-evaluation of strategy on the part of the AIDS lobby.
On the whole it was a unique experience, totally different from other scientific meetings, because it brought together scientists, social scientists, clinicians, activists, journalists, human rights and patent lawyers, PWAs and a host of different people.
What was difficult to shake off and perhaps disturbing was the air of jamboree that hung over the whole conference. Amid all the hugging and chatting, networking, hustling for funding and heavy handed drug company marketing and playing to the camera-activism, one was slightly sobered by the thought of the millions out there daily living under the shadow of HIV. At times, it was difficult to make the connection.
Reproduced from the Nigeria-AIDS eForum, the e-mail discussion forum of Journalists Against AIDS (JAAIDS) Nigeria. To subscribe, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: www.nigeria-aids.org.
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