Why I Love the International AIDS Conference

By Jessica Taaffe

I remember my first International AIDS Conference well.  It was 2010, and I attended the conference in Vienna to present a poster on my PhD thesis work. Walking through the conference one day, I came upon a group of activists loudly protesting for better access to harm reduction services, like needle and syringe programs and opioid substitution therapy.

I thought, “WHAT kind of conference is this???”

I’m a biomedical scientist. I was trained that science is neutral, objective, dispassionate. So I was naturally shocked by the activism at the conference. My perspective on this has changed since then, and it’s why I now love the International AIDS Conference. At this conference, scientists ARE activists; they are part of the large and inclusive community of people working to end AIDS. And at this conference, all of those people–scientists, policy makers, activists, civil society, communities living with or affected by HIV—come together.

Science, policy and activist communities don’t often intersect. At conferences scientists usually focus on research advances and less on how to put them into policy and practice. Conversely, high-level policymakers attend meetings that set global agendas but few scientists are in the room.

At this conference, they do intersect—and interact.  Scientists have access to sessions hosted by organizations setting global HIV policy. They can give the context of their evidence and influence how it is used (or not).  Policymakers and program directors have access to the latest research advancing the field, helping inform their recommendations and program implementation.  

And those researchers and policymakers have an opportunity to directly interact with the communities affected by the HIV epidemic.  For example, I attended a pre-conference event next door to a session on transgender rights. The cheering and loud applause seeping through the walls warmed my heart.

Mutual access and dialogue between communities is critical. As a scientist, a better understanding of affected communities or populations leads to more targeted research or solutions.  For instance, research presented yesterday indicates that African women are more susceptible to HIV infection and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) isn’t as effective in some of them due to differing vaginal microbial strains.  Targeting treatments against the responsible bacteria may enhance current and future HIV prevention efforts.  

For activists, having access to the science allows them to make demands and personal decisions based on the evidence. Men who have sex with men have been enthusiastic and early adopters of PreP. When these communities interact, real change happens.  

I love the International AIDS Conference because it epitomizes the HIV movement–the coming together of an expansive and diverse community with the common goal of ending AIDS.

That is what I want to see in global health: I want scientists to see how their research directly improves the lives of people.  I want them to be informed of larger issues in the field that may shape their research or inspire new studies. I want scientists to be PASSIONATE about their science and use it to directly advocate for policy change.  I want policymakers to appreciate the complexity of the research process and use evidence appropriately.  I want them to see the impact of their decisions on the lives they affect.  

I want more communities living with a disease or at risk from the disease to be science-literate and empowered to advocate for what the health services they need.

As the 21st International AIDS Conference unfolds this week in Durban, South Africa, I hope the global health community is paying attention.  Colleagues, this is how you mobilize an equitable, science-driven, people centered, and effective health response.  We need much more of these events in global health.

Jessica Taaffe, PhD, (@jessicataaffe) is a biomedical scientist working in the translation of science into global health policy and practice. She is principal consultant, Global Renaissance Enterprises.

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