Highlights of the International AIDS Society Conference in Brisbane 2023

The Indigenous HIV and HCV Health Equity pre-conference day one was INCREDIBLE. Clear-eyed assessment of the harms caused by colonisation and continued by — that deceptively benign word — ‘settlers.’ The linkage of this history with contemporary HIV incidence and outcomes was also made clear. It was powerful hearing from First Nations advocates from Australia, Canada, Hawai’i and New Zealand, and the parallels and differences in their experiences. We heard about many innovative and exciting projects led by Indigenous HIV advocates and program staff in epidemiology, social research, prevention, HIV care and support. I loved the PrEP Pono campaign from Hawai’i.

A presentation by Prof Kane Race to the U=U Global Forum on Day Two. Snarky as FUCK in Kane’s own inimitable style, it raised a whole range of vital questions for the movement — questions, it should be noted, the movement is already grappling with. And probably the most hilarious slide fail I’ve ever seen, prematurely unveiling an image of Kairon Liu’s spectacular sculpture for HIV Art as Science, a giant penis in clear plastic filled with unused HIV medications.

A different artwork by Andrew Chan for the HIV Science as Art exhibition.

Next, a self-care fail: transiting from one event to another left no time to have lunch, and low blood sugar led to a migraine without headache — just aura and puking for hours — so I missed out on the interactive bits of the ACT NOW Forum on Global HIV Migration as well as the Unity Vibes community art festival and dance party.

Day three involved a bunch of satellite sessions and doing some IAS training for rapporteurs. I was a rapporteur for Track E, health economics and implementation science, on a team led by Omar Galarraga from Brown. The IAS computer systems are a little terrifying but the rapporteur liaison Justyna Gaczorek was a calm and clarifying presence. I’m running on about three hours sleep and I skip the HIV Science as Art exhibition launch for an early night — devastated to miss the launch but I’m calling this a self-care win.

Day four was the first day of the conference proper. Memory gets a bit blurry. I wake up at 6AM and start my conference day at 7:30am delivering a training session to volunteers in the Positive Lounge. The ‘Poz Lounge’ was organised by Queensland Positive People and looks absolutely stunning; an oasis of calm and creativity amid the rigours of the conference.

I attend a session on social science in the fifth decade of HIV and maybe I’m just tired and emotional but it makes me rather cross. In part it’s just the setup of the session but it makes it seem like HIV social scientists spend as much time defending their turf as they do presenting actual social science.

I rapporteur the Track E Late Breaker Session and it’s incredible to hear what LoveYourself are doing in the Philippines. They have developed an all-virtual de-medicalised PrEP service called E-PrEPPY and to get around logistics challenges in one of the world’s densest cities they developed their own motorcycle courier service, with riders receiving SOGIESC sensitivity training.

Day five (Tuesday) sees me rapporteuring another session on community-led models of care, which includes a fantastic presentation by Prof James Ward, introducing the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Service model to the HIV world. I rapp another session on achieving the 95-95-95 cascade goals.

Day six, Wednesday, and the finishing line is in sight! I’m rapporteuring a session facilitated by my lovely colleague Beau, featuring another presentation from LoveYourself Philippines as well as one by Laura Nyblade on stigma reduction. Nyblade’s study claims to be responding to and measuring intersectional stigmas but it operationalises stigma entirely in terms of individual negative attitudes. It reports a statistically significant and sustained reduction in stigma, but it’s about 0.3 points on a 5-point scale.

I’m typing away in the rapporteur’s lounge — yes, it is INCREDIBLE having somewhere quiet to retreat to at an international conference — when suddenly… is that SINGING? It’s a protest led by the U=U movement and its organisers the Prevention Access Coalition — demanding the international HIV/AIDS community #sayzero. In other words, don’t say effective HIV treatment ‘reduces’ risk or comes with ‘negligible’ risk — suppressed viral load means zero risk for HIV transmission during sex.

It is lovely attending the final reportback session and hearing the chief rapporteurs giving the highlights of the conference. Track E chief Omar Galarraga is extremely consultative (slash pragmatic about workload) and invites his three rapporteurs to nominate three findings we’d like him to highlight in his reportback. I choose the E-PrEPPY project, as well as Prof James Ward’s remarks about making peer work sustainable, and projects offering non-HIV care (e.g. gender affirming care) as entry points into HIV care. I get to see my name up in lights and my colleagues capture the moment for me…

Some other highlights in no particular order:

  • Seeing the incredible work of my NAPWHA colleagues on the Deliberate Discussions series paying off in a series of well-attended, thought-provoking short conversations on stage in the exhibition space.
  • Volunteers helping out everywhere and having fun attending the conference and spending time in each other’s company. 😉
  • I finally got to meet Bernard Gardiner in person and he gave me a copy of a new report ‘Living Positive in Queensland: 2013-2020.’ Its key themes include a generational lens, place and locality, ageing and older PLHIV, stigma, social isolation and support, and the new pandemic, Covid-19. It will be an essential resource for the work NAPWHA is leading on quality of life for PLHIV.
  • Flying Jetstar on their A320s that are wider than 737s and don’t require me to hunch up into a little ball of back pain to avoid crushing my seatmates.