TV & Radio
Condoms, cannabis, beads... and networking: Secrets of AIDS forum success
by Richard Ingham
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
The audience is receptive as New York prostitute-turned-author Tracy Quan, curled on a makeshift double bed adorned with silk drapes, cushions, condoms and an assortment of strap-on dildos, reads from her latest book.
Excerpts of "Diary of a Married Call Girl," Quan's second foray into literature after a first novel that has sold several hundred thousand copies, meet with smiles and occasional nods from the small assembly of fellow sex workers and the simply curious.
It's all in a good cause: Quan is doing her bit at the International AIDS Conference here to get recognition for prostitutes, hoping to transform an industry that in many countries is criminalised and stigmatised and thus badly at risk to the AIDS virus.
At a meeting area opposite, grassroots workers debate the problems of HIV/AIDS in China and Hong Kong. A Canadian booth is promoting free legal advice for people with HIV.
Activists discuss the plight of gay Tamil men and transexuals in India. Japanese campaigners show off dozens of comic condoms, a useful addition to safe-sex efforts in Japan.
A Bangkok orphanage, the Mercy Centre, proudly talks about its experience in saving Thai AIDS orphans. Campaigners for the sexual rights of Muslim women press their case. African non-governmental organisations sell clothing and beaded jewellery to raise funds. Small organisations of caregivers learn how to apply for grants from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The meeting point, called the Global Village, is one of the most vibrant, features of the global AIDS conference, a sprawling event held every two years that this year has drawn a record 21,000 people.
And delegates agree that the Village is one of the conference's most useful features, too, because it encourages grassroots networking and new ideas.
"The response here has been fantastic, we are completely overwhelmed by the interest," said Sara Lee Irwin, with a Canadian company, Cannasat Therapeutics Inc., which is researching medical uses of cannabis for HIV patients to help them relax and stimulate their appetite.
Members of a small Canadian group, Lipo-Action, said they had been encouraged by interest in their campaigning about a distressing side-effect from taking HIV drugs -- the risk of a huge buildup of solid fat in the neck that is called "buffalo hump".
"When I walk down the street, I feel as if people are moving out of their way, they don't look me in the face," said Lipo-Action's Brian Marsan. "I had a friend who committed suicide over this."
Lipo-Action wants the Canadian health service to fund operations to remove the disfiguring bulge but also wants drug companies to investigate the phenomenon in order to improve their treatments.
Chinese AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, whose country is a newcomer to the fight against AIDS, said the AIDS conference was extremely useful for learning new skills from veterans. He had attended seminars on legal issues, treatment, prevention of HIV and legal rights.
"China has yet to organise an effective AIDS campaign," Wan told AFP, adding that back home, grass-roots work -- an essential tool for delivering safe-sex awareness, fighting stigma and encouraging HIV testing and so on -- was hamstrung by officialdom.
For Wan and others who are fighting a lonely war, the AIDS conference hammers away at the walls of isolation, creating contacts, friends and moral support from around the world that in turn enhances knowledge, provides tools and encourages funds.
Peter Piot, executive director of the UN agency UNAIDS, says he is unsurprised that the twice-every-two-years conference is such an eagerly-awaited event and that "HIV/AIDS community" is not a false term.
"The history of AIDS is also a history of globalisation, the globalisation of a pandemic," Piot said Wednesday, as he noted how HIV began with a tiny human source and then spread around the world, with nearly 38 million people today infected by the virus.
"Every single individual living with HIV is connected to all other persons living with HIV. And that is the existential meaning of the movement of people living with HIV, I believe."