I’m going to be keeping a daily journal to update you all on what is going on here at the International AIDS Society’s 2014 Conference in Melbourne. I’m here to present information on THT’s work on our Health Wealth & Happiness project for over 50’s living with HIV, the work of the Bloomsbury Patient Network and Patient Reps at a high level session on user-led clinical services, the issue of prosecutions for HIV transmission in the UK and a poster on the excellent feedback I got from myHIV website members surveys. I hope you find the information interesting, and will try not to go on for too long and bore you! Wink
I arrived on Friday afternoon, only to hear of the terrible shooting down of the Malaysian airline that morning. It was the top story in the news here, given the number of Australians who were on the plane and the fact that so many passengers were on their way to this very conference. This will undoubtedly cast a long and dark shadow over the entire conference, but many people have already spoken of the determination to honour then lives and legacies of those who dies so senselessly, by honouring their work and re-doubling our efforts to make a difference in a world as a way to counter and negate terrorism, hatred, violence and intolerance.
The weekend before the main conference is where all the many pre-conferences take place – for women, sex workers, drug users, gay men, as well as cure research, confronting criminalisation and many other relevant topics. The Saturday pre-conference session I attended was organised by the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, which I have attended in past years as well.
Unsurprisingly, the welcome from our local hosts and the main opening speakers was tempered by the sadness and horror of the loss of our international colleagues on the Malaysia airlines flight, some of whom were scheduled to be presenting at the conference that day. There was the usual minute’s silence to commemorate those we have lost to the epidemic, but with special mention and inclusion of our fallen colleagues in the remembrance.
The Incoming IAS President, Chris Beyer, spoke passionately about representation, being the first ever openly gay IAS President, and spoke of his excitement about the potential for PrEP and TAsP. How we maximise and make use of these prevention messages is crucial work which will require relentless fighting for the human rights of our community in countries where restrictive legislation criminalises our behaviours. The Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibe, described the current situation for LGBTI communities as the best of times and the worst of times, with legislation granting ever more equal rights in some countries and regions, whilst in others we are increasingly criminalised and penalised for who and how we love. 81 countries still penalise same sex practices, with 7 countries making it punishable by death. HE emphasised that ending AIDS by 2030 will be impossible if we do not put people at the centre of our approach and allow them to be themselves. He spoke passionately about inclusion, partnering with allies and forging new ones and putting an end to discrimination, criminalisation and prejudice. He spoke of this conference being the ‘Melbourne moment’, where we stood together and said no to bigotry exclusion and AIDS.
The Keynote addresses came from Prof Peter Aggleton, from the University of New South Wales and a gay Nigerian activist called Kenny, who had stepped in at the last minute, when the original presenter had been refused an entry visa but the Australian Government. Thankfully, this has now been granted, following forceful admonishments by the conference organisers, though too late to allow him to arrive by the Saturday.
Prof Aggleton spoke passionately of the biomedicalisation on the subject of the HIV response – while we have made great gains in the fight against HIV, he warned against the potential urge to credit science with all the successes and instead to remember and celebrate the incredible fight that gay men took on when we were dying, ignored by governments. His pleas for greater inclusion within our own varied and perhaps fractured communities was to acknowledge our differences and recognise our similarities, in a time where we risk becoming a homogenised group of MSM. He suggested that in an era where the ‘respectability’ of gay marriage is the order of the day, we need to put sex and sexual diversity back on the agenda.
Kenny (I’m afraid I don’t have his surname, as he had no slides or presentation, having stepped in at the last minute) spoke from first-hand experience of the issues of being a gay man in Nigeria, while exploring the wider context of homosexuality and the law on the African continent. The many different countries, each containing different ethnicities and in different stages of democracy makes the situation incredibly complex and he found it hard to speak about LGBTI ‘rights’ when basic human rights were not even guaranteed in so many countries. The fact that 17 countries in Africa do not criminalise same sex relationships is often forgotten, and while those that do will need persuading, withdrawing aid will not help the effort of those who are currently being supported by foreign NGO’s within those countries. He asked that international governments ‘ask us where we are going and push us in that direction’, rather than leading the way for them. Creating a culture of dependency will not serve people in the long run and while it is essential to provide prevention programmes, where is the support and information for those who already have the virus?
I have to say that despite attending two very interesting workshops on Community-based participative research and Community Systems Strengthening, I was extremely disappointed that the MSMGF conference chose to frame all of their workshop topics in relation to HIV prevention. As a gay man who has lived with HIV for more than two decades and cares passionately about the needs lives of people living with HIV, I found the programming to be shamefully one-sided and almost exclusionary. This was noted in my conference feedback, which I hope will contribute towards a more balanced programme the next time!
Today (Sunday) I spoke at a satellite session of the main conference which was exploring the issues of ageing with HIV. Rosemary Gillespie, the Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, acted as ‘discussant’, providing an overview of all the presentations and issues they raised. There were delegates speaking about the issues linked to ageing in Uganda, Kenya, Australia, the UK and the USA and it was perhaps surprising that so many of the issues were common ones, despite the different healthcare systems and size of epidemics in each country. In short, isolation, anxiety for the future as regards potential multiple health problems, financial difficulties and fear of potential discrimination and/or ignorance in health, care and support services which do not have an understanding of HIV, were the common themes. I am attaching the slides of my presentation about our own 50Plus research and the resulting Health Wealth & Happiness project for your information. The feedback I received afterwards was unanimously positive and once more took the work that THT is doing in this area to be a model to duplicate and roll out in other countries. We even had an application from a Brazilian delegate to come and volunteer for the Health Wealth and Happiness project when she moves to London for a year to improve her English and find good practice for her NGO in Brazil.
After that I retired to the Positive Lounge at the conference centre, the space for delegates who are living with HIV, so they have some space to take a break (it’s 8am to 9pm sessions, so a hell of a long day if you choose to overdo it!) where I promptly submitted to jet lag and slept for two hours, before heading back to the hotel to write this up! Now I’m going to head off to the Global Planet Positive event, which is the HIV community welcome party, and hope that I can get a good night’s sleep later – it’ll be the first time so far, as I’ve had less than four hours on Friday and last night!
All the best, until tomorrow.