Maryn McKenna, at her “Superbug” blog on the Wired website, on Sunday:
At 5 p.m. today, Eastern time, something extraordinary will happen in Washington, D.C. It won’t look like much — just the opening of a big conference in a big convention center — but when the 19th International AIDS Conference begins its opening ceremonies, it will mark the first time in 22 years that the largest international gathering on the epidemic, the centerpiece of research and activism, has been held on US soil.
Twenty-two years is effectively one generation — there are probably people attending the conference who were not born when it was last held in this country — as well as two-thirds of the time this disease has been with us. So I think it’s worth underlining how momentous this is, and how it potentially signals a new moment in the long fight against HIV…
The first AIDS conference, a small gathering of researchers, was held in Atlanta in 1985. In 1987, the US Senate unanimously passed an amendment forbidding anyone with known HIV infection from entering the United States even temporarily, preventing many activists and patient representatives from attending… The rule went into effect in time to severely disrupt the 1990 conference, in San Francisco, and the next US location, Harvard University, said it would refuse to host unless than ban was lifted. It was not, and the conference and its showcasing of AIDS research, treatment and prevention went abroad and stayed there. It is back now because, in late 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the travel ban.
So much happened in those 22 years. When the conference left, AIDS was still an invariable and ugly death sentence; the multi-drug cocktails, known as HAART for “highly active antiretroviral therapy,” were not introduced until 1996. I think it must be close to impossible for anyone who was not around at the time to understand what it was like, in the days before HAART. When I remember it — I lost many friends in the early days — I get a glimmer of what 1918 must have been like, or possibly even the Black Death: Dozens of people you know, almost all at once, desperately ill, and shunned, and then gone…
Much more at the link (and you really should read the Scientific American overview). McKenna’s not exaggerating. I was lucky enough not to lose close friends, but the sense of impending doom, the “Angels in America” despair that people without power would be mowed down because the people with power chose (at best) to turn away, permanently scarred a lot of political activists even beyond all the ones it killed directly or indirectly.
The Washington Post, not surprisingly, has quite a few stories covering the conference. (Selfishly, I wish I could see the AIDS Memorial Quilt; I was lucky to be able to see a portion during a travelling exhibition some 20 years ago. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it’s one of those monuments that needs to be witnessed for full effect.)