Addressing HIV: Do Conferences and Papers Help?

Article excerpt

My initial reaction to the proposed title of the following article, "Addressing HIV: Do Conferences and Papers Help?," was strong and immediate. I also found myself sitting squarely on both sides of the fence: yes, of course, they help to expand people's minds and abilities to respond effectively to the epidemic, but there is so much wasted time and money involved in organizing most conferences. With the intention of exploring these reactions and putting them in an appropriate context, I decided to poll several colleagues, whom I have worked with, in defining and mobilizing the response to the worldwide human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) epidemic. The feedback I received on my mini-survey, which simply asked respondents to give me their immediate thoughts and feelings about the proposed title, filtered in from Canada, France, Senegal, South Africa and the United States. I have synthesized the general reactions and supplemented them with my own analysis of the question.

All of those who took the time to consider the usefulness of conferences and papers in addressing the problems engendered by the HIV epidemic agreed that both are indeed valuable in helping to deal with HIV and the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The basic premise of this point of view is that conferences and, through them, the presentation of papers serve at least to bring together people working within the epidemic, allowing them to exchange thoughts and ideas and to network amongst themselves. HIV and AIDS affect those who try to curb the epidemic's spread and to respond to its many consequences differently from other areas of work and life. Why is this the case? It is because few other recent developments carry with them both the urgency and the emotional and psychological impact of the HIV epidemic. People who devote their professional lives to dealing with HIV and AIDS often need more regeneration and support than those who work in other areas. Again, why is this the case? My simple answer is that even today people who immerse themselves in the epidemic, almost inevitably at both professional and personal levels, take upon themselves not only the enormity of HIV and its unabated spread throughout the world but also the stigma of a virus which is, at worst, synonymous with blame, shame and fear and, at best, an unpopular subject of discussion and reflection. For this reason, we must be able to come together, not only to present the latest developments in vaccine research, antiviral therapies and models for policy and programme formulation but also to rant and rave, complain, let our hair down, exchange ideas, offer support and advice and refuel our commitment.

Other advantages of papers and conferences include: the value of drawing attention to HIV/AIDS and related issues through the publicity generated by them; the role which some conferences can play in launching new initiatives, partnerships and, in some cases, even organizations; and the importance of learning what is being done outside of one's own country or region. This last advantage of large conferences and the papers presented has been particularly important for groups such as the Network of African People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAP+) and the African Network on Ethics, Law and HIV, both of which I have worked with intensively. Members of NAP+ and the African Network, particularly those with less mobility and those coming from countries with difficult internal problems, such as Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, to name a few, have been able to discover a whole world of work on HIV existing outside of their own national environments, which are often highly insular. At the same time, it has proven equally important for conference participants from outside of Africa, including donors, to learn about some of the very progressive responses to the HIV epidemic being formulated within Africa, often in those countries which appear to be enduring the greatest difficulties. …