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Science

Conference diary: how AIDS2014 has taken shape

Julie Milland rubs shoulders with the world’s foremost HIV researchers amid the carnivale that is AIDS2014. 

Words and images by Julie Milland
 
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Science is one thing . . . 

On the eve of the conference, the Nobel Prize winner Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, an organiser of AIDS2014, hit the airwaves to acknowledge the great loss to the AIDS research family that was the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. I hadn’t understood how true Barré-Sinoussi’s sentiments about family were until I walked through the doors of the Melbourne Convention Centre.

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AIDS 2014 feels like a movement, like a world music festival, like a rally or demo, like a gay festival and maybe just a little bit like an academic conference. I’ve attended quite a few of ‘all of the above’ over the years and this is like all of them rolled into one with an emphasis on diversity and a feeling of welcome.

Conference communications manager Sian Bowen says that official attendance numbers will not be available until the closing ceremony on Friday but at the half-way point, about 12,500 people had arrived from more than 170 countries.

By mid-way, around 3000 people had visited the Global Village, which is the cultural focus of the conference. Money is no barrier to visiting the Global Village – it’s located just outside the official goings-on in Jeff’s Shed where 16 marketplace booths, 20 networking zones, 19 art exhibitions and 70 NGO contact points are the face of an extraordinary global network that reflects the reach of HIV and AIDS. Here you will find groups as diverse as the Kazakh Network of Women Living With HIV to the School of Pharmacy, Zimbabwe.

It’s raining condoms

A dance performance wraps up in the Global Village and the audience reaches to catch condoms thrown from the stage.

With at least 20 condoms for every participant, it’s a cornucopia of condom diversity at AIDS2014. Organisers of theCondomize! campaign alone have brought 250,000 male and female condoms to Melbourne.

Condomize! is a joint program of the United Nations Population Fund and The Condom Project and is really the face of condoms at the conference. The Global Village has a Condomize! zone fitted out with a ‘lubricant-tasting bar’, with strawberry being the plat du jour.

A second Condomize! zone in the main section of the conference has a massive stage where the talented Joy Lynn Alegarbes (@CircaJoyLynn) tirelessly presents hours of information about condoms.

Your intrepid reporter sparks a conversation with Alegarbes about female condoms and she draws in a small, curious crowd. Alegarbes, the ‘master trainer’ for Condomize! and the director of global operations at The Condom Project, says two of the six female condoms on display are approved by the World Health Organisation.

Alegarbes says that female condoms can be inserted before sex and so won’t inhibit spontaneity. Needless to say, a correctly used female condom gives more women more control over their sex lives. Using a female condom is not as straightforward as a male condom — as her deft presentation reveals — and so she recommends practice before field use.

By the way, for those wondering, male and female condoms should not be used in combination. “Using more than one condom increases the friction and increases the chance that both condoms will break,” Alegarbes warns.

One of the prototypes contained a sponge, one had a soft ring at each end and another looked like a G-string (or thong for non-Australians), called the “panty condom”. One of the WHO-approved models was available as a sample. The FC2 from the Female Health Company was specifically designed to give women around the world protection from pregnancy, infections and, of course, HIV.

When remission might be as good as cured

The nuances of the word “cure” are important to understand when talking about HIV and AIDS. Professor Sharon Lewin from Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital noted that finding a true cure was a long-term aspirational goal for researchers. But to qualify as a “cure”, doctors needed to be able to stop treatment of the person living with HIV, without the virus ever coming back.

A true cure may not be needed . . . [L]ong-term remission combined with an effective vaccine would potentially deliver a “world without AIDS”. — Prof Anthony Fauci

Lewin said a more realistic immediate treatment goal would be to achieve long-term remission. At present, if treatment is stopped, the virus returns in one-to-four weeks, and so researchers are working towards lengthening that remission time.

In the famous case of the Mississippi baby, doctors thought the child had been cured because HIV was not detected for more than two years after treatment was stopped. This was an unprecedented success, but unfortunately the virus was recently detected in the baby’s blood.

This illustrates why doctors prefer to use the word “remission” for HIV, like doctors who treat people with cancer.

In a scientific session, Professor Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told participants that HIV can hide throughout the tissues of the body and so it can be difficult to know if people are actually cured. These hiding places are known as the HIV reservoir.

Fauci said that a true cure may not be needed and that long-term remission combined with an effective vaccine would potentially deliver a “world without AIDS”.  

Life, art and life etc 

The Global Village seems to be the engine for action for AIDS2014. With a performance stage, art exhibitions, NGO booths and networking zones, the area has been teeming with people and colour and lives up to its reputation as an area for activities and meetings.

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One of the first things to catch your eye is the accompanying art works. The Condom Couture: Dress up against AIDS exhibit is a stand out, with a selection of couture from Brazilian artist Adriana Bertini on display. Bertini only uses quality-control reject condoms to create her colourful pieces, including the one pictured right. She is an AIDS activist who seeks to “demystify” condoms through art and play.

The “Transcendents” exhibit is a series of 36 stunning black and white portraits by Dr Cameron Wolf in conjunction with SWING (Service Workers in Group Foundation). Dr Wolf promotes public health in Thailand through his work, especially with photos of the well-known Bangkok cabaret performer Chan.

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At the mid-point of the conference many of the networking zones and NGO booths are full of people taking advantage of the ability to share, meet and discuss. Many of these are from specific groups or conference “key affected populations”, which refers to groups of people who are “disproportionately burdened by HIV”.

The make-up of these populations will differ depending on where you are in the world but include gay men and men who have sex with men (MSM); Indigenous people; migrants and mobile populations; people living with disabilities; people living with HIV; people who use drugs; prisoners; sex workers; transgendered individuals; women; young people and adolescents; young women and girls.

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