Toronto
2 min

Memo to: The International AIDS Society

Since returning from Durban, South Africa, many people are asking me whether the XVth International AIDS Conference will be held in Toronto in 2004 as planned?



Chat groups and list-serves came alive last spring after the International AIDS Society (IAS) announced that Toronto had won the bid to host this prestigious conference, which would inundate the city with 15,000 delegates – including scientists, community people and journalists from around the world. The angry debate that ensued gave voice to the concerns of activists worldwide who demanded to know why Toronto had been chosen.



After all, the conference has been held twice on Canadian soil, in 1984 and 1996. Is it not time to focus on HIV/AIDS in the developing world where it will soon become the number one killer, reducing life expectancy to some 40 years of age? The issue must, it was argued, be focussed on those countries where the need is greatest. The debate raged on in the run-up to Durban.



Putting the Toronto decision aside, the IAS was in a lather. Boycotts were predicted from those who feared for their physical safety in South Africa; most afraid were pharmaceutical company staff, whose anti-viral drugs are out of reach for the vast majority of people with HIV.



Well, guess what? We went, we saw and we learned.



We learned that we can no longer view access to health care as a privilege for those who can afford it. We learned that it is a basic human right. We heard, in the words of Justice Edwin Cameron, a gay South African with HIV, that we can no longer tolerate the “collusive paralysis” of governments, international organizations and the pharmaceutical industry, which use the lack of infrastructure as an excuse to deny affordable drugs and care. We learned about the “wait and see” attitude of South African President Thebo Mbeki’s government, which has stymied the creation of effective prevention programs. We learned that inequality between genders makes women unable to protect themselves from the violence of men. We learned that microbicides and vaccines are still many years away.



And we learned that the South Africans could put on one hell of a conference. We were passionate, we were overwhelmed, we were re-energized. The International AIDS Society must know, as do all of us who were there, that we must go to South America, to Thailand, to India and to Russia. Durban took the risk that proved we can.



There are those who would like to reopen the question of Toronto in 2004, but here’s the rub: we can only take this mammoth show of scientific and community expertise on the road if we can find venues large enough and sophisticated enough to house us. There are few cities in the developing world with the facilities and the political will to guarantee US$1-million to under-write such a venture. They must be countries, unlike the United States, which allow people with HIV to visit.



In the meantime, Toronto should play host at the appointed hour. In doing so, we should showcase our work in all its cultural diversity, and provide scholarships for as many people facing obstacles to achieving good health as we possibly can. That includes people from here as well as abroad.



In the future, however, every effort should be made by the International AIDS Society and its international community partners to put the Third World…. first by alternating conference sites according to an equitable system of rotation.