An overview of the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington

Next week the annual International AIDS Conference is taking place in Washington, D.C. from July 22 through July 27. It is being held in America for the first time since 1990. Curious about what it consists of, and having found about it too late to attend, I conducted a combination e-mail and phone interview with Bob Witeck about the Conference and its significance. Bob is President of Witeck Communication, a D.C.-based strategic marketing and public relations firm that works with major corporations on their business strategies related to the gay community. He formerly worked on Capitol Hill for Republican Senator Packwood (R-OR) and currently sits on the Diversity Boards of a number of corporations, including News Corp. and Miller-Coors.

Dustin Siggins: What is the significance of holding the International AIDS Conference in America? How many people are expected to attend?

Bob Witeck: We are told that the Conference is likely to attract 20,000 to 25,000 people from at least 200 countries. Given the global pandemic and the giant economic impact of HIV/AIDS, this is no doubt why so many scientists, health researchers, business leaders and government representatives take part. Having the conference in the U.S. is historic (and the first time since 1990) because the Obama Administration at last lifted the restrictions on visitors from overseas living with HIV/AIDS. It stands to reason that the conference could never be held in the U.S. so long as there was a policy of discrimination against the very people the conference participants are most determined to help.

DS: What is the significance of the Conference in general? Is it a place for victim support, fundraising for AIDS victims, pushing policy, or all of the above and then some?

BW: To begin, the word “victim” is both inaccurate and demeaning, and it is rarely used in most contexts since victimization is not how the response to HIV/AIDS is viewed by most leaders and experts today. We also know that like cancer, tuberculosis and other widespread diseases, people live with the consequences of all kinds of health issues and disabilities – but that does not render them helpless or reduce them merely to victims.

The Conference is significant primarily because it engenders a global community of expertise and purpose – in how dollars are invested, research is conducted, treatments are prioritized and solutions shared with some of the smartest and most effective professionals in the world. Given the scale of this challenge, it is essential to globalize human talent and to find consensus how to invest the funds that are available to do the most good and to achieve lasting change. Disease of any kind stands in the way of human progress and purpose, and a global epidemic is a threat to stability and economic success – in addition to the massive human toll. This Conference customarily surfaces new findings and rededicates hard-working groups to use and expand the knowledge they receive here.

DS: But isn’t research done all the time and all over the world?

BW: Yes, of course it is. But conferences like these are catalysts. Look at it like a computer – putting people together and motivating them to coordinate is a lot more effective. They are unlocking keys for our human bodies, and this science is not exclusive to helping only those living with HIV and AIDS. It is helping with fundamental knowledge, immunology, cancer, transplantation and so on. The science is the driver for all of this.

DS: What are some of the major themes that will be presented?

BW: Again, this Conference is primarily a knowledge-sharing and networking gathering. However, at each Conference there customarily are higher expectations for some medical and therapeutic breakthroughs. There exists today no cure for HIV/AIDS, and that day is not yet in sight, however, through these Conferences, extraordinary contributions have been made to medical research and to enhance our response to an encyclopedic range of illnesses, diseases, immune dysfunction, and to grow our grasp of basic cellular sciences. In short, whether or not HIV/AIDS ever existed, the myriad advances in health care, epidemiology and basic medical sciences have been huge and sustained. All of mankind benefits from this work and these Conferences.

DS: Is it significant that President Obama is not attending? Or is that just media hype? How important was his Administration in getting this here?

BW: I am personally disappointed he is not attending; however, there is satisfaction that he is hosting some of the participants at the White House, we understand. What matters most of all is his commitment to a U.S. funded and science-based response to HIV here at home and overseas that produces lasting and measurable results, and that is a bipartisan or even a nonpartisan investment. As I mentioned, his Administration changed U.S. travel policies and lifted restrictions that made it possible for the Conference to be held this year in Washington, D.C. and that deserves kudos.

DS: I understand President Bush set the stage for the Conference being in Washington. This is an area he really has garnered praise both domestically and internationally. Does he deserve some credit for this?

BW: Both President and Mrs. Bush are to be congratulated and honored for the Bush Administration’s policies, compassion and commitment to global HIV/AIDS. President Bush set the bar high, and deserves credit for the important global work he led and the funding he promised.

DS: I imagine the Conference addresses politically controversial topics, such as the role of contraception in Africa and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the gay community. Does the Conference do a good job of rising above partisan rancor?

BW: Actually most of the content throughout the Conference, including the submission of research papers, is intently focused on sound science and medicine. In the public policy arena, the discussions will focus on social and cultural norms that surround treating and ending epidemics, and of course, there is debate and controversy. That goes with the territory.


Note (DS): While Bob and I didn’t get into it above, issues like contraception and sex education are always part of debates over the most effective paths to HIV/AIDS prevention, and the decisions on if or how they are utilized are important to any discussion of HIV/AIDS. Rather than delve into that, however, I decided to keep the interview focused on the overall point of the Conference itself.