XVII International AIDS Conference – Thank You Tony

When I arrived at the XVII International AIDS Conference I was expecting a bit of a spectacle based on accounts from WYA attendees who went to the AIDS conference in Toronto in 2006. Fortunately, this was not the case and most participants went about seriously presenting their ideas about how to halt the spread of AIDS. The only disappointment was there seemed to be one acceptable idea: people cannot and even should not be expected to limit their sexual behaviour and therefore the latex condom is the only realistic long-term prevention method against HIV/AIDS.

My morning began with a trip to two sessions that were ultimately dull and abandoned by most attendees. Gabrielle Ferri, Canadian Committee member, and I then headed off to the “Global Village” where one could listen to The Vagina Monologues or sit in on discussions that started with “I’m a lesbian. And maybe I don’t say that enough because I’m so out.” It all seemed completely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of people at risk for, or living with HIV/AIDS.

We sat down for the panel discussion in the Youth Zone, which was set up by the NGO Fuerza Joven (Youth Force). They were giving out free t-shirts, they had three rooms for networking – it was a very well financed operation. The panel had one message for young people, the only way to protect yourself from AIDS is the condom, “young people need services, they need information and condoms so they can protect themselves.” One young participant asked the obvious question, “Young people know about condoms, we know how to use them and we know they protect us from AIDS but we think we are invincible and end up forgetting to use them. What can you tell me, to help me, help young people remember?” Gabrielle whispered to me, “They should write it on their hand.” I had a good chuckle. The panellist answer: “We shouldn’t be as worried about ending AIDS as about changing hearts.” I couldn’t believe my ears.

By the end of the day, I was disappointed that a culture war about sexual behaviour was distracting the attention of conference participants from the needs of people trying to fight the AIDS epidemic. There was no discussion of risk avoidance, there was no positive role for the family and there was no discussion of overall health and wellbeing. Instead, there was only a resounding rights claim – the right for everyone to have all their sexual choices affirmed in the fight against AIDS. The right to local community-based strategies to combat AIDS, the right for parents to protect their children, the rights of vulnerable women in developing countries to have options that prevent entry into sex work – not mentioned.

At the end of the day, the other Canadian WYA delegates and I attended a special cocktail hosted by the Canadian government. Tony Clement, the Canadian health minister, was in attendance and gave a speech about Canada’s commitments to fighting the AIDS pandemic. Although he received much applause during his speech, there were some hostile audience members. After the speech, everyone rushed to talk to him and at one point he was questioned on providing clean needles to injection drug users at risk for HIV infection. He answered that this was not a complete solution and that drug addicts needed treatment for their addiction as well. This resulted in greater hostility on the part of the “askers” who apparently thought that drug addiction was a cool life style choice … or something.

I had a chance to speak to Mr. Clement and reminded him of our previous meeting in Ottawa during the Emerging Leaders Canadian Conference, organized by WYA in February 2008. He remembered me and seemed really relieved to find a friendly face. We took a picture and then he left.

The girls and I stayed on and met with other Canadian attendees who had never heard of any of the concerns we were bringing forward. I would get blank stares…but I am hopeful that we can bring about change or at least some sincere thinking about issues such as immigration policies that split up families, overall health of sex workers, testing and ARVs in developing countries and behaviour-based prevention strategies.

Anyway, Tony if you ever read this I just want to thank you for being brave enough to take a stand for the overall health of the person facing the HIV/AIDS epidemic. With so many people sitting around agreeing with each other all day, it was refreshing to hear a dissenter and it encouraged me and the entire delegation to keeping talking about person-centered approaches to HIV/AIDS, prevention and care.

Thank you Tony!

Shannon Joseph – North American Director – World Youth Alliance