Thursday, August 24, 2006

Thoughts about the XVIth International AIDS Conference

Lucy Marcil, a 2006 graduate of Davidson College, joined me at the recent International AIDS Conference. The following is a transcript of a conversation we had about the conference. Please subscribe to The AIDS Pandemic podcast to hear our conversation.

(DW) With me today is Lucy Marcil, who attended last week’s International AIDS Conference in Toronto with me. Welcome, Lucy.

(LM) Thanks. I’m happy to be here.

(DW) What were your general impressions of the conference?

(LM) At first it seemed like 24,000 people was a little bit overwhelming. But it also was really invigorating because there was so much energy and enthusiasm. There are so many ways to tackle to HI /AIDS pandemic. It really inspired me to become more of an advocate and activist. What did you think about it?

(DW) I guess I felt similarly. I was most impressed by the diversity of the participants. It truly is an international meeting. You are as likely to sit down next to someone from South Africa as you are to sit down next to someone from the United States. And also the diversity of ideas that are featured there. There are researchers and clinicians covering basic science. As you said, there also are advocates and activists who are there, too. There really is a great deal of diversity at the conference.

You attended one of the HIV/AIDS engagement tours organized through the conference. Can you tell us a little about that?

(LM) Sure. I spent a morning at the Toronto Department of Public Health. While we were there, we learned all about their sexual health programs. They have a wide breadth of programs and really creative programs. For example, instead of relying just on department officials to do community outreach, they give grants to different community-based organizations who better know the needs of those specific populations. They also, instead of closing bathhouses as San Francisco did in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, used those to reach that risk population and better intervene in the epidemic

(DW) One of the issues that came up in a few sessions was harm reduction for injection drug users – methadone treatment programs, needle exchange programs – did that come up at all in the tour you went on?

(LM) Yes. They have needle exchange program at the Toronto downtown department. They also have vans that drive around the city and can arrange to meet drug users at any location that is convenient and do needle exchanges. So it seems like they have a really flexible program and are really working to help that population.

(DW) One of the things that really hit home for me during the conference was the number of different kinds of people at risk for HIV and the number of different kinds of treatment programs and prevention programs that you need. Certainly, injection drug users are going to require a different kind of prevention program than sex workers, for instance.

(LM) Definitely. I think that is really important and something they have realized. You have to let different groups come up with their own solutions.

(DW) For you, what was the highlight of the conference?

(LM) Probably getting to hear Paul Farmer speak a couple different times, because he is pretty much my idol! But, I also had a really interesting conversation with a guy from Sudan. That was really cool because he was from such a different part of the world and I got to learn about the HIV response in their country and also more about his country and their culture.

Did you have any similar highlights?

(DW) I guess I really enjoyed hearing Bill Clinton. He gave a talk one afternoon. That was probably the most exciting session that I attended. I think generally I was just most excited by the energy and the vitality that was present throughout the conference.

(LM) I definitely would agree with that.

(DW) So, are you planning on attending again in 2008 in Mexico City?

(LM) If I’m not still in Namibia, I will.

(DW) OK. Well, I hope we can see you there. Thanks for joining us today, Lucy.

(LM) Thanks for having me.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

XVIth International AIDS Conference

Friday marked the end of the XVIth International AIDS Conference in Toronto. Along with Lucy Marcil, a 2006 graduate of Davidson College, I had the pleasure of attending the conference to present our work on developing an HIV/AIDS education web site. With 30,000 some delegates, this year’s conference was the biggest meeting ever devoted to AIDS.

From an opening ceremony that featured Alicia Keyes, the Blue Man Group, and the Bare Naked Ladies, to special sessions featuring Bill and Melinda Gates and former president Bill Clinton, the star power was high. But the real stars were not these high-profile celebrities. In my opinion, the real stars included Sasha Volgina, an HIV positive injection drug user from St. Petersburg Russia, who works for FrontAIDS, an HIV/AIDS advocacy group in Russia, Kerrel McKay, a 21 year old from Jamaica who became involved with HIV outreach when she was 15 years old, and the countless advocates, activists, researchers, and clinicians from throughout the world who attended the conference.

A major focus of this year’s conference was the empowerment of women and girls. As several speakers noted, women throughout the world too often are denied adequate educational opportunities, too often lack economic independence, too often are sexually abused, and too often cannot adequately protect themselves from HIV. All of these factors must change.

Microbicides may be part of the answer. In one session, Gita Ramjee eloquently described current research into the development of anti-HIV microbicides. These gels could be applied intra-vaginally by women, thereby allowing them to protect themselves from HIV. These microbicides, then, would empower women and stop, to some degree, a reliance on prevention methods controlled by their sexual partner. More information about microbicides can be found at the Alliance for Microbicide Development web site:

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

MTV: Helping Young People Learn About HIV

With the catchy pop song, Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, a new era dawned: the era of MTV. 25 years ago, on August 1st 1981, just weeks aftger the first scientific report about AIDS, the music video station was born. And, one could argue, music, television, fashion, and pop culture itself have never been the same.

To many, MTV is synonymous with Beavis and Butthead, Spring Break, and Pimp My Ride – not exactly the most enlightening fare television has to offer.

But MTV should be commended for contributing much more to the lives young people in the US and the world. For many of us, our first real insight into the life of a person with AIDS came via MTV. During the third season of The Real World, set in San Francisco in 1994, the viewers of MTV became familiar with Pedro Zamora. Pedro found out that he was HIV positive in 1989, while he was in high school. After graduating from high school, he became an HIV educator. On The Real World, he explained to his roommates, and many others in the television audience, how HIV could be transmitted. We also got to see the stigma associated with AIDS and the medical hardships associated with this syndrome. Pedro Zamora died on November 11, 1994, one day after the last episode of The Real World aired.

While the 1994 season of The Real World certainly represents the most direct way in which MTV has educated its audience about HIV/AIDS, the network continues to provide important information to its viewers. Its parent company, Viacom, along with CBS and the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation have produced numerous public service announcements about HIV and have included HIV themes in many of their shows. More information about this ambitious initiative can be found at And a first episode of new documentary – think HIV, produced by MTV and the Kaiser Foundation will debut on August 18, the last day of the upcoming International AIDS Conference. More information about this show can be found at