21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), Durban, South Africa. Photo shows: In Our Voice: Positive Stories! Positive Teens! Positive Lives! Photo©International AIDS Society/Marcus Rose

Will an AIDS Mega-conference in Durban contribute to the end of HIV?

The 21st International AIDS conference – AIDS2016 -draws to a close today. Held every two years, this massive conference brings together policymakers, activists, scientists, and people living with HIV to face the challenge of bring an end to AIDS. This year’s theme was “Access Equity Rights Now,” and it was attended by about 18,000 delegates. Bringing this many people together is meant to reinvigorate the fight against HIV by sharing state of the art information about treatment and prevention, and to develop new connections and alliances among people who work in HIV.

It’s a difficult to summarize a conference of this size. There are literally hundreds of sessions and poster presentations. The topics discussed range from activist approaches, to laws that pertain to HIV, to advances in medical treatment. The facts and research shared verge on overwhelming. But here are a few:  HIV is the #2 cause of death for adolescents globally.  Young gay and bisexual men at risk for HIV need more support when taking prophylactic drugs to ensure it is effective. A combination of the drugs Sofosbuvir and Velpatasvir shows high cure rates for hepatitis in people living with HIV.

Celebrity attendees included Charlize Theron, the UK’s Prince Harry, and Elton John. Theron gave a powerful keynote speech, hitting hard on the idea that stigma is deadly. “AIDS doesn’t discriminate, but we do,” she said. Elton John called for the inclusion of young people in the fight against HIV, calling for young people to be partners rather than patients. His foundation also teamed up with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to disburse the first grants of a $10 million fund to “strengthen the capacity of local community organizations and expand HIV prevention and treatment for LGBT people.”

In parallel with the official themes and presentations, inclusion has emerged as a major conference theme. Discussions on Twitter and in conferences panels have touched over and over on the populations who are acted on instead of included. Participants have been calling for better inclusion of women, youth, and people of color. #StopErasingBlackPeople has been repeatedly paired on twitter with the #aids2016 hashtag.

Will this mega-conference contribute to the end of HIV? The International AIDS Society, who organizes the conference, believes that it will. The fight against AIDS is certainly one of global health’s longest, most sustained efforts. It bridges medicine, anthropology, legal analysis, and economics. Efforts to eliminate AIDS continue to receive most of the funding they need, and high-level public support. These biannual conferences may well be the engine that keeps that momentum going.

Disclosure: I’m doing some consulting for the team evaluating the conference, helping to identify the impact of the conference.