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AIDS conference takes over downtown D.C.

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Photo - People gather around a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, July 21, 2012. The full quilt's display on the Mall was delayed due to rain. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
People gather around a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, July 21, 2012. The full quilt's display on the Mall was delayed due to rain. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Local,DC,Liz Farmer

For the first time in more than two decades, the annual International AIDS Conference is back on U.S. soil and downtown Washington is playing host all week to more than 23,000 delegates from nearly every country in the world.

Held at the District's 2.3-million-square-foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center, the conference is dominating downtown as attendees -- identified by their token denim conference bags and badges -- have overtaken the sidewalks and streets around Mount Vernon Square. On Monday afternoon several city police officers were required to direct the traffic around the square all day.

"We've been preparing for this for years," said Greg O'Dell, CEO of Events DC. "Every [convention] is unique but the passion of the attendees here makes this really stand out. [For example], the demonstrations that will take place inside the convention hall and around the city."

Fighting diseases with dollars
  Known U.S. cases Deaths in a year* New cases (2011) Annual government funding
AIDS/HIV 1.2m 17,000 50,000 $7.6b
Cancer 11.96m 577,190 1.64m $4.9b**
* for most recent year available
** National Cancer Institute funding, which spends the most on research. Doesn't represent other agencies.
Source: NIH, CDC, UNAIDS, GlobalHealthFacts.org

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray got a taste of that Monday during his speech in the conference's Global Village on progress resolving the District's AIDS epidemic -- he was booed by some onlookers because of the federal probe into his election campaign.

The conference village, which is open to the public, is its own eclectic arena for networking, shopping and learning. Scores of attendees and visitors roam, some dressed in T-shirts declaring their cause, others donning hats that would rival Carmen Miranda's collection, and still a few others in drag.

The conference aims to bring together experts and policymakers to share the latest developments in AIDS/HIV research. Conference leaders said this annual gathering marks a potential turning of the tide on HIV, but warn that funding strains could threaten efforts to find a cure. Although AIDS research dollars generally outweigh budgets for other disease research, funding has stayed flat for several years.

Still, at least one person claims to be cured. Timothy Ray Brown was rid of the AIDS virus as a result of a stem cell transplant he underwent for leukemia treatment, and on Tuesday is announcing, along with the World AIDS Institute, further research developments.

The conference kicked off Sunday with the Memorial Quilt Ceremony and events continue through Friday, when former President Clinton is scheduled to give the keynote address.

In 2009, President Obama lifted the U.S. ban on allowing people carrying the AIDS virus to enter the country, setting the stage for the conference to be held here for the first time since 1990.

Examiner intern Jacob Demmitt contributed to this report.

lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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