ROME — The Sixth IAS Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention opened here last night with glorious music by young Italians, political activism by AIDS campaigners and the most optimism on the potential for serious progress against HIV/AIDS in many years, perhaps since the advent of the epidemic 30 years ago, by almost everyone.
“We all know that this event is happening at a scientific watershed in the global AIDS response,” said Elly Katabira of Uganda, international conference chair and president of the International AIDS Society, in his opening remarks. “Indeed this conference may well turn out to be the marker of that watershed. All the indicators are here: We have a record number of abstract submissions this year, and we are coming off the back-end of two years of significant biomedical advances. These results could prove to be as important in the future as the anti-retroviral breakthroughs of the mid-90s.”
Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS, also struck optimistic notes. “The scientific community is advancing the AIDS response as never before. A few years ago, the world could barely imagine what has now become real.
But he also talked about “dark forces” at work at last month’s UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS in New York.
“Countries were saying, ‘We have done enough.’ They are reducing their contributions — even at this moment of unprecedented discovery. They cannot see beyond near-term costs towards the long-term benefits of universal access and innovation. Some are now saying that treatment for prevention is too costly, too risky and unsustainable. What is truly costly, risky and unsustainable is inaction.”
Italian civil society made their presence known throughout the opening ceremony in the form of a banner, unfurled in the front of the stage, that read “Berlusconi. Liar. Fund the Global Fund.”
They say that the Italian government has not yet disbursed the 2009 and 2010 contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and never pledged for 2011-2013. They have just sent a letter to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, urging him to reconfirm the Italian commitment. Italy has also been the worst-performing G8 country in terms of keeping its G8 commitments for at least the last two years.
Filippo von Schloesser, who represented the community of people living with HIV/AIDS, added a tragi-comic aspect to the proceedings: “Welcome to Italy! Where the government has failed its promise to contribute to the Global Fund. Not a single Euro since 2009 … Welcome to Roma! We are only 2 miles from another country, the Vatican, where scientifically proven methods to prevent the spread of infectious diseases continue to be confounded with moral and religious principles. We hope that the Papal declaration to open a dialogue on condom use will be implemented because we feel the Vatican, so close to us here, is many miles away from our hearts and minds, far from our view of contemporary women and men.” Here is a video of part of Mr. von Schloesser’s speech that was sent in by a member of Italian civil society.
Rome Mayor Giovanni Alemanno, who also spoke at the ceremony, said he was outraged to learn that his government was in arrears to the Global Fund and would immediately write a letter to Berlusconi demanding that this be rectified. I was later told by a Global Fund official that Alemanno has known for years that this was the case. Three days later, the Mayor Alemanno did send a letter to Berlusconi.
These demands on the Italian government coincide with a time when Italy is in an unusually turbulent period of political and economic unceertainty, and in the headlines over a possible “euro crisis” in the country, and fears of following in the footsteps of Greece.
The talented teenagers of the JuniOrchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia provided music by Beethoven, Barber, Verdi, Bernstein, Mascagni and Queen that lifted the spirits of an appreciative audience.
Italian civil society has developed “The Rome Declaration” as an articulation of their hopes for the IAS Conference, both Italian national interventions and international interventions.