Citing a dedication to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, top Obama administration officials formally announced Monday that Washington, D.C., will host the 19th International AIDS Conference in 2012.
The announcement came at a White House event at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as part of the commemoration of World AIDS Day, which is geared toward heightening awareness of the HIV/AIDS epidemic around the globe.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the conference would help foster discussion on combating HIV/AIDS.
“This conference will draw together an estimated 30,000 researchers, scientists, policy makers, health care providers, activists and others from around the world,” she said.
The U.S. is able to host the conference after repealing the administrative ban that prevents HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the country. The repeal, implemented earlier this year, is expected to go into effect Jan 4.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, praised the end of the ban during the event and said it will help the U.S. continue its role in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.
“The HIV entry ban was a policy that tore apart families, kept people from getting tested, forced others to hide their HIV status and forgo life-saving medications,” she said. “And most of all, it didn’t reflect America’s leadership in fighting the disease around the world.”
Since many participants for the international AIDS conference are foreign nationals who are HIV positive, the ban had prevented the U.S. from hosting the event. The last U.S. conference took place in 1990 in San Francisco. Another was scheduled in Boston in 1992, but was moved to Amsterdam out of concerns over the U.S. ban.
Elly Katabura, the Uganda-based president-elect of the International AIDS Society and international chair of the conference, said his organization decided to hold the event in the U.S. after the Obama administration lifted the HIV travel ban.
“This change is a significant victory for public health and human rights,” he said. “The IAS now calls on all countries that still have similar policies that restrict free movement of people with HIV and AIDS through their borders to remove them immediately.”
The decision to hold the conference in D.C. also is significant because the HIV/AIDS epidemic has hit the city hard. Around 3 percent of D.C. residents are known to have HIV/AIDS.
D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who attended Monday’s event, told DC Agenda that hosting the conference in the District will help raise awareness of “how this disease is affecting inner cities in the United States of America.”
“Hopefully, by having it here, by being the showcase with the biggest problems and what we’re doing to solve them, we’ll also come up with new ideas that will be taken around to places throughout this country and the world following the conference in 2012,” he said.
Sebelius said HIV/AIDS still has an impact on LGBT people throughout the country, particularly those who are black. She said in five major U.S. cities, almost half of all black gay men are HIV positive.
But officials cited the work the administration and Congress have done in confronting the epidemic both at home and abroad, including the reauthorization of funds under the Ryan White Care Act to provide assistance to low-income people with HIV/AIDS and the inclusion of HIV/AIDS provisions in health care reform legislation before Congress.
The development of a national AIDS strategy also is underway. Sebelius noted the administration is holding town hall meetings in cities throughout the country to hear concerns about addressing the epidemic.
Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser and assistant to Obama for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, said HIV/AIDS is a “personal” issue for the president, particularly with regard to the domestic epidemic.
“He has said that we’re not always very good at talking about HIV/AIDS,” she said. “We have to do a better job of talking about it in our places of worship, throughout our communities and our organizations, our schools and, of course, our workplace.”
Reflecting on the symbols of World AIDS Day, including the large AIDS ribbon that adorned the White House in recognition of the occasion, Jarrett said fighting HIV/AIDS is “deep and personal” for her and that her sister-in-law died a “tragic death.”
“I saw the other members of her family and 5-year-old daughter, as well, all struggle with her death,” she said. “I’ve also had close friends who have either passed away as a result of AIDS or who are living with AIDS right now.”
The issue of how discrimination against LGBT people abroad interferes with combating the global HIV/AIDS epidemic also was discussed during the event.
Clinton said the Obama administration would “combat discrimination” around the world, noting that international efforts against HIV/AIDS are “hampered whenever discrimination or marginalization of certain populations results in less effective outreach and treatment.”
“We have to stand against any efforts to marginalize and criminalize and penalize members of the LGBT community worldwide,” she said, drawing applause from the audience. “It is an unacceptable step backwards on behalf of human rights. But it is also a step that undermines the effectiveness of efforts to fight the disease worldwide.”
Additional efforts to confront the global epidemic are expected to emerge soon. Eric Goosby, the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, said he planned later this week to unveil the new five-year strategy for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, an effort designed to fight the global AIDS crisis first implemented by former President George W. Bush.
He said the new strategy “will focus on sustainability” as well as programs that are “country-owed and economy-driven” and “address HIV/AIDS in the context of the broader health needs.”