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For Dr. Paul Benson, founder of the Be Well Medical Center, two things were different about this year’s World AIDS Conference held in Washington. D.C. The first was that though he was able to attend 13 of the past 16 conferences, this was the first he was able to travel to with a group of fellow HIV care providers and patients from Michigan.
And the second was a more grand realization. “I’ve been going to these since the 80s when people were angry,” he said. “When AIDS patients would throw cherry juice at speakers, the cherry juice was for blood. And when they would destroy things. People were mad. This conference was the first ever that was optimistic.”
The conference was held in the nation’s capitol from July 22-27. Dr. Benson and the other delegates worked for two years to raise money to go as a group, with one particularly successful pancake breakfast that raised over $4,000. Nine delegates were able to go, and on Aug. 29 five of them, including Dr. Benson, spoke about what they learned at a dinner presentation for supporters.
The optimism Dr. Benson felt came from a variety of presentations that demonstrated that the end of AIDS is in sight. There is, of course, a catch. “The science is there,” he said. “We have the medicines. We have vaccines. We have multiple options for protection. It’s the intervention that’s the hard part. Getting people to take medications. Getting people to protect themselves. Dealing with the social issues that stand in the way.”
One of the benefits of the Conference was being able to look at AIDS from more perspectives than even the most ardent AIDS activist could imagine. The prejudices, obstacles and even successes of others, spark new ideas and spread them throughout the world.
Sex Workers of the World
The delegates each presented information they found interesting or important to share. Debbie Dempster is a nurse who treats AIDS patients. She told the audience that “being of a social work heart, this is where I’m going to speak from. The sex workers were the ones that touched my heart.”
She described the “Global Village” area of the conference where sex worker organizations had their own section, with groups like HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) talking about the need for education, decriminalization and support services for people in the sex work trade.
In most places prostitution is illegal, and some places have additional barriers to protection of sex workers, like in Russia where it is illegal to have more than three condoms on a person at a time.
Next Stop Australia
Scott Cook was impressed with the sheer size of the event and the abundance of information and culture.
One of the take-aways Cook was impressed with was a cutout of the U.S. with the counties color-coded by the prevalence of HIV infections. The map, created by the Centers for Disease Control showed that the coasts of the country are the hot spots, with points of entry being the hardest hit. Florida, for example, is full of red, whereas some states in the Midwest don’t even have reported numbers.
Cook focused his presentation on comparing Australia to the U.S., since the next AIDS Conference will be held in Sydney in 2014.
“A lot of people that visit Australia go to the East Coast and that’s where most of the cases are,” he said. “I found it interesting that in Australia there are 29,395 cases of HIV and in Michigan there are 25,607. That means we have about the same number of cases in our state as they do in their whole country.”
Not Just A Number
For Leslie Guinn the trip meant knowing and showing that he is more than just a number. Guinn is not just a gay man. Not just a black man. Not just a recovering substance abuser. Not just another case of HIV.
While on the trip, Guinn celebrated nine years clean by going to the Martin Luther King Jr. monument and celebrating the positive turn his life has taken since he took control and started making healthy decisions for himself.
He lamented the treatment of other patients as if they are criminals. He was particularly moved by the stories of people from the Czech Republic, where having HIV is a criminal offense. “I met a social worker from New York City. He stood up before me and addressed the Czech delegates before I did. ‘Please let us not forget these are human beings,’ he said. ‘How is a recovering drug addict or sex worker going to be honest if they are only a number?'”
Guinn ran into the social worker later in the conference and asked if he could take his picture because he was so moved by the things he’d said. The two became fast friends, and theirs really is one of many new bonds that were made among the thousands of attendees.
“Feeling like more than a number” was crucial in Guinn being able to overcome his obstacles and move towards self-actualization. He met Dr. Benson seventeen years ago, and credits the Be Well Center and his counselor Shelly McAllister for helping him feel empowered enough first start using protection, and ultimately to find a life that he finds safe and rewarding. He thanked the health care professionals in the room and told them why they are so important in stopping the AIDS epidemic. “The first thing we want to know is that we matter. And self-esteem can be infused in us just by how you treat us. When you go into work you change lives.”
A Criminal Even in Michigan
Being a teacher made it easy for delegate Ken Warnock to soak up information at the conference, and one area that struck him as crucial is the de-criminalization and de-stigmatization of the people who have HIV or AIDS.
“One of the presenters was from the University of Michigan and he did a thesis on the criminalization of HIV. Michigan ranks fourth in criminalization laws,” he said. He explained that in Michigan laws are being used to turn biting or spitting into cases of bio-terrorism, and that disclosure laws are a barrier to people wanting to get tested or to tell others about their infection.
How You Can Make A Difference
There was a woman in the audience who recently lost a loved one to AIDS. After absorbing the information of what was happening around the world, she wanted to know what someone like her could do.
Dr. Benson explained that education and de-stigmatization are important. Getting involved with AIDS organizations and sharing information online and in person about prevention can help. He said that people may not realize all the ways they can prevent HIV infection. Condoms are an obvious choice, but even those have stigma attached that people need to overcome. There are also medicines to prevent the disease. Circumcision can reduce the risk. And early treatment works to stop it from progressing.