I descended into Vienna early this morning into the mass chaos that is the International AIDS Conference. There is often drama at this enormous conference - demonstrations, declarations and sometimes noisy cries for action - but this year the drama was heightened by a thunderstorm that crippled the Vienna airport and left thousands of arriving attendees temporarily deflected to Budapest (me) or Bratislava, Hungary. The chaotic scene at the Vienna airport at 3 a.m. offered a glimpse into the conference itself - dynamic, diverse and people in constant motion, angling for information. Some 20,000 people from 185 countries are expected to converge on Vienna's Messe Wien Center for the 5-day gathering, to hear the latest news in the global war on AIDS.
The conference opens this evening, with introductions from dignitaries, including Austrian President Heinz Fischer, and an update on the state of the epidemic from officials at WHO and from UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé. Annie Lennox, the singer /songwriter/activist who was recently named UNAIDS International Goodwill Ambassador, will also address the crowd and lead a march and rally on human rights on Tuesday evening.
Among other conference highlights:
- A keynote speech Monday by former President Bill Clinton, who often sets the tone for these biennial gatherings. Bill Gates, who has attended previous conferences, also is rumored to be speaking, though he's not listed on the official agenda.
- Updates on the search for an AIDS vaccine. This is the holy grail of AIDS research but has so far proved elusive. It's all the more urgent now, as there are 20 times more people who become newly infected as those on treatment. So refocusing attention on new methods of prevention is critical.
- Likely results on the latest trials of microbicides, which have disappointed in the past. These are typically gels that women can apply topically to help prevent sexual transmission of the virus.
- Much discussion on how to sustain the current levels of treatment, particularly in the hard-hit region of sub-Saharan Africa, at a time of global economic stress. The oft-expressed goal of universal access seems all the more distant now.
Ruthann Richter is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school's communication office. She is attending the International AIDS Conference in Vienna and is posting periodic updates on the happenings there. You can see all of her updates in our HIV/AIDS category.