Gary Bell will be blogging regularly from the conference on behalf of the Black Treatment Advocates Network.
It's day one of the International AIDS Conference of 2010, but day three for me in Vienna, Austria. This is a time of "firsts" for me. This is my first International AIDS Conference and my first time travelling to Europe. I am attending the conference as a delegate of BTAN, the Black Treatment Advocates Network of the Black AIDS Institute. My day job is as the executive director of BEBASHI -- Transition to Hope, the first black AIDS services organization in the country, which is, this year, commemorating its 25th anniversary. I was honored to be chosen for this important job that will include a three-year commitment, and will involve creating a treatment advocate/education initiative in Philadelphia.
It was a difficult trip. I am sure that veterans of international travel will understand, but I have certainly learned a few lessons. However, so far, it has been well worth it. When I told my colleagues that I would be attending the conference and that it was in Europe, I was met with virtually universal support. However, whenever I embark on a new endeavor or initiative, I have trained myself to ask a crucial question: What for? In other words, why an international AIDS conference when the focus of my career has been to help primarily minority people in the Philadelphia metropolitan area? To be blunt: How will learning more about HIV/AIDS around the world help poor black folks in Philly? It's an important question, but one that was easily answered in my first two days of meetings and presentations.
While I expect this to be (and it has so far been) a life-changing experience, I will summarize the main expectations in three ways:
Information: With eight days of meetings, presentations, poster sessions, as well as informal conversations and networking, I have already begun to learn a great deal, especially about new trends, interventions, etc., that I can utilize in my work in Philadelphia. For example, yesterday, I attended a special session facilitated by the Black AIDS Institute that featured some of the best minds in African-American HIV/AIDS treatment, policy and care, including Dr. Kevin Fenton of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Helene Gayle of CARE, and United States Representative Barbara Lee. Their words and careers have been an inspiration to me and I valued the opportunity not just to hear them, but to meet them.
Context: Another program that I attended today was a meeting facilitated by the African and Black diaspora Global Network on HIV and AIDS (AB-DGN). Launched at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada, in 2006, AB-DGN's mission is to strengthen the response to emerging HIV/AIDS epidemics among African and black communities in the diaspora. While I am certainly aware of the existence of black people in many countries around the world, this session, as well as the one sponsored the day before by the Black AIDS Institute, helped to remind me of the devastation of HIV, not just in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, but among other black people including those in Canada, Germany, France, England, etc. As a loooong-term HIV/AIDS activist (since 1987), I and many like me have struggled to get our folks in the United States to recognize that, while this is a global epidemic, the United States is a part of that globe. Yet, we cannot lose sight of the fact that there are no walls around the United States and some of those very same people, my brothers and sisters from the diaspora, may end up here. Moreover, we cannot allow others around the world to suffer because of the lack of information or access to treatment that is readily available to us. An International AIDS Conference helps to remind me of something that we actually have printed on one of BEBASHI's T-shirts: "One World, One Epidemic."
Contribution: This final theme is one that hasn't really happened yet, and that is: What will my contribution be -- both to this conference and to my community? The final presentation of the day that I attended was on the United States National HIV/AIDS Strategy. There have been strategic plans, such as the one led by Dr. Helen Gayle when she was at the CDC, to cut the number of new HIV infections in half; yet there has never been a true United States strategy. Without elaborating too much on the plan, it focuses on three primary goals: reducing the number of new infections; increasing access to care and optimizing health outcomes for people living with HIV/AIDS; and reducing HIV-related health disparities. Needless to say, even though developing the strategy was not an easy task, now comes the hard part: implementing it.
Goodbye from Vienna. Will be in touch tomorrow!
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