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Durban Diary – wrap-up

Saturday, 23 July 2016 Written by // Bob Leahy - Editor Categories // International AIDS Conference , Opinion Pieces, Bob Leahy

In conclusion . . . Editor Bob Leahy is in Durban, South Africa this week, filing daily reports from the International AIDS Conference. On his last conference day he looks back on what it all means

Durban Diary – wrap-up

I’m sitting in my hotel room having just got back from the last session of the last day of AIDS 2016.

Just before I left the building, I happened on a video of some of the conference highlights – and I cried. I think it was the footage of the march that drove me over the edge and the  emotion of those shots of a sea of people surging through the streets. But then this whole conference experience kind of hits you in the gut. Why? It’s hard to explain even to myself. But I think it’s to do with what one observer on my Facebook page called “an exhilarating rollercoaster of information, energy and love". Because a lot of it is about the people. Collectively you feel very proud of them – of us – and it feels good, but sad to let it go. 

Not that it was a conference that seemed to contain anything startling scientifically; there was a marked absence of anything that seemed really new or ground-breaking, Instead the predominant discourse was about getting to 90-90-90 and after that the eradication of AIDS by 2030. 

Are these targets achievable globally? I think they might be. Some countries are already there on 90-90-90. Do they include Canada? No. In fact Canada is stuck in the odd position of not having a handle on the epidemiological data that contributes to 90-90-90 and experts guess they won’t have it until 2021, so in effect making attainment of 90-90-90 impossible to measure. (Instead they will pretend they have data as do provinces like Ontario who famously claimed they are moving in on 90-90-90 with no data that yet substantiates that claim.) 

In fact Canada was singled out on the conference main stage for its particularly unjust legal system that sees people living with HIV imprisoned for non-disclosure, who pose no threat to anyone as a result of virus reducing antiretroviral therapy. 

Not that the news was all bad. The Canadian delegates played important roles at the conference – as marchers, presenters and vociferous advocates. And the Canada Pavilion was a busy and welcoming place which projected a good national image. 

As for Durban, it served us well. True many delegates saw little of it, including myself, and there were real concerns about personal safety on the streets. It’s an Americanized city but rough around the edges. Security within the conference venue was very tight but then I suppose it has to be for an event like this in 2016. But Durban, in fact South Africa, with its central place near the heart of the AIDS epidemic (it’s now doing rather well) and its history of insurgence, of Nelson Mandela and of a human rights and equality revolution, seemed liked a good choice.  If only it were nearer. 

Highlights? The warmth of the people, the camaraderie of the attendees and their willingness to engage with each other, the march, the excitement of the Global Village, the unexpected happenings, like the demonstrations or this condom fashion show from today. 

I did a ton of interviews too – not behind the camera but in front of it. I hardly know why except that perhaps I am not a typical attendee, or my name is no stranger to many in our community. In any event my new involvement as a subject in The Graying of AIDS project was noteworthy not just for the professionalism of their work and the time they took both with their photography and recording my story, but the end result. I was bowled over by seeing the results displayed on the last day. 

I could have reported so much more here on but I couldn’t be everywhere, so missed interesting sessions on how PrEP is becoming a major and effective part of our prevention toolkit in more than a few countries, with even news of an injectable PrEP that it is in trials whose effects will hopefully last three months. Or the many sessions focussing on particular populations at risk. An ex-Facebook follower pointed out to me that people with disabilities and their impact on HIV received short shrift, and I would argue that so did long term survivors, but marginalized people like sex workers the LGBTQ community, indigenous people and people who use injection drugs all had their time in the spotlight. 

I also missed most of the celebrity sightings. True we all saw Charlize Theron but you had to be in the right time and place to catch a glimpse of Elton John or Prince Harry. And with so much going on concurrently and the obligations I had at various times, it was inevitable that attendees like myself saw a snapshot of the conference program rather than its entirety. 

So that’s it really. A one–day safari to see big game tomorrow then I fly home on Sunday, arrive on Mondayi 

It’s been a blast and a privilege. Hope you enjoyed hearing about the trip!