AIDS 2016: Opening talks celebrate early pivotal action, and those who carry on

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Science Speaks is covering the 21rst International AIDS Conference this week live from Durban, South Africa, with breaking news, updates and analysis of new research findings, evidence-based responses, and community action for global access to HIV treatment and prevention.

Science Speaks is covering the 21rst International AIDS Conference this week live from Durban, South Africa, with breaking news, updates and analysis of new research findings, evidence-based responses, and community action for global access to HIV treatment and prevention.

“AIDS exposes us in all our human vulnerabilities . . .” Justice Edwin Cameron, July 19, 2016

DURBAN, South Africa – Justice Edwin Cameron concluded his talk at the first morning session of this conference with an invitation to sex workers in the audience to take over the stage.

Dr. Sunil Sunhas Solomon concluded his with a pledge to carry on the work of his mother, Dr. Suniti Solomon, who looked for, found, and responded to HIV among female sex workers in India, before dedicating the rest of her life to research and services for the least served people.

They were moments in the start of a 21st conference that, 35 years after AIDS was recognized among deliberately marginalized populations, has been focused, this time, on highlighting the neglected needs and ongoing abuse of prisoners, sex workers, men who have sex with men, transgender women, and people who inject drugs.

In the Jonathan Mann opening speech, Justice Cameron traversed the last three and a half decades, from rampant death to denialism, to the fights and victories of “angry, principled treatment activists,” and the unwavering dedication of scientists. He reviewed the obstacles that have littered the way and still do: The “intellectual property” and patent protections that, he said, represent merciless greed, laws he called “vicious, misguided and evil,” that criminalize people who live with HIV, criminalization of sex work (“criminalizing sex work is a profound evil and a distraction”, the war on drugs, and finally, the result of all of that, the stigma that continues to surround infection.

Justice Cameron, a South Africa Constitiutional Court judge, a former anti-apartheid champion, said to be the first South African government official to let it be known he is gay, has lived with HIV for the last 30 years. “The worst part of being diagnosed,” he said, “was the internal shame, pollution, and contamination, and the disgrace that I felt.”

Dr. Solomon echoed the theme later, recounting that in his mother’s final months she told him that she wished she had found the first HIV in the cardiac patients she also had tested, rather than in sex workers. Then, she told him, stigma might not have attached itself to the virus.

Both celebrated victories, Justice Cameron highlighting the success of antiretroviral treatment among children who can get it, before calling his godson Andy Morobi, to the stage. Born with HIV, he had lost his family to the virus before he began antiretroviral treatment eight years ago.

That was eight years after the last International AIDS Conference in Durban, Mr. Morobi noted, the one where an international response to activists who marched in a demand for  treatment marked the beginning of a turning point. On the opening day of this conference, Mr. Morobi credited his own survival to the events of that day. “Thank you,” he said, “to each and every one of you who took part in that march.

Read the full text of Justice Cameron’s speech here.
Read more about Dr. Suniti Solomon’s work here.

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