AIDS: Largest AIDS conference brings thousands to Chicago

Published: November 16, 2011

An estimated 2,600 people flocked to downtown Chicago Nov. 9-13 for the nation’s largest annual AIDS conference.

This year marks the first the 15-year-old U.S. Conference on AIDS ( USCA ) has been held in the Midwest. The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel.

The USCA 2011, themed around men who have sex with men ( MSMs ) , drew major figures in the fight against AIDS, including celebrities.

Presenters included CNN’s Don Lemon, Tony Award-winning singer Jennifer Holliday and former Project Runway contestant Mondo Guerra. White House Office of National AIDS Policy Director Jeff Crowley spoke as did Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Other noted speakers included Dr. Julio Montaner, of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS; Bertrand Audoin, the executive director of the International AIDS Society; and David Furnish, chairman of Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Speakers at the conference focused on major policy changes and medical advancements related to HIV care and prevented in the last 18 months.

Game-changers in the fight against AIDS, they said, include new information that shows that young black MSMs are contracting HIV at an accelerated rate, the implementation of the National AIDS Strategy, the passage of the Affordable Care Act as well as scientific advancements that, if funded, could curb infection rates.

Experts said the question was not whether it was possible to end AIDS at this stage, but whether or not service providers and policy makers would step up to the plate to actually make it happen.

"I would ask you all in the fundamental moment of change to really seize this moment," said Crowley, who stressed the need to begin implementing cutting edge science to end AIDS.

Overwhelmingly, the tone of the conference was upbeat, with presenters encouraging attendees to shift focus from managing HIV/AIDS to ending the virus.

The National Minority AIDS Council ( NMAC ) , the organization that puts on the USCA, announced a change in its mission. Board members said that while their mission was to develop leadership to "address" HIV, it will now develop leadership to "end" HIV.

The conference did not draw the numbers it had in past years. Initial estimates had estimated that between 3,000-3,500 people would register. Cynthia Tucker of AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) had later predicted that the number could reach 4,000 due to the number of early registrations and the fact that Chicago is centrally located in the country. Early totals estimated just 2,600 in attendance.

Kyle Murphy, a spokesperson for NMAC said that estimates for this year’s conference were based on averages from the 14 years that the conference has run.

"Given the state of the economy, the number we got this year is actually surprisingly strong," Murphy said.

Still, local service providers had the opportunity to showcase their efforts. The Center on Halsted, Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus, Vida SIDA and CALOR held receptions in the city in conjunction with the conference. AFC CEO David Ernesto Munar delivered opening remarks to attendees. Other Chicago-based organizations presented throughout the conference and conducted workshops.

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