(The Root) — In Washington, D.C., whose residents include the leader of the free world, there's an interesting juxtaposition. The ornate and imposing buildings that house our federal government stand tall over streets battered by a crushing epidemic. And, in a city all too familiar with power and authority, the rampant HIV/AIDS problem in the nation's capital seems out of control.
From July 22 to July 27, leaders, politicians, scientists and more will converge on Washington, D.C., during the 19th International AIDS Conference, or AIDS 2012, the first in the United States since 1990. The event's theme is "Turning the Tide Together," and, for some, this year's conference represents more than academic findings or roundtable discussions — the conference represents optimism and assurance.
"The conference is convening at a very pivotal time in the HIV/AIDS movement," Shawn Jain, AIDS 2012's U.S. media relations representative told The Root. "There have been such exciting scientific advances in the past couple of years that have really changed the landscape of the epidemic."
But, today's not the time to step back HIV/AIDS initiatives, according to Jain. It's time to increase momentum within HIV/AIDS activism.
"[We are] challenging all stakeholders to harness their expertise, energy and resources to mount an effective response," Jain said. "We really believe that this could be the turning point in the epidemic."
If tides are turning at this year's conference, there are few places better to play host to the event than Washington. In the nation's capital, which is home to about 600,000 people, 3.2 percent of residents are HIV-positive. And, the rate of HIV infection among black men in Washington is more than double the city's overall average.
"I remember how we were the first to make great advances in a city when it came to HIV/AIDS," Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and a former HIV/AIDS street outreach educator in Washington, told The Root. "We were the first at the time [in the 1980s] to create a city agency to address HIV/AIDS."
In comparison, the African countries of Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo all have rates lower than that of the District of Columbia. In fact, if D.C. were a state, its rate of HIV infection would be five times higher than any other, according to PBS' Newshour.
Until recently, having the conference in Washington, D.C., was not an option. AIDS 2012 was made possible in October 2009 by President Obama's reversal of decades-old restrictions on HIV/AIDS travelers — a move that allowed HIV-positive activists and researchers from abroad to attend.
"[The conference] will also shine a light on HIV/AIDS as an issue in the United States," Jain said. "There's a kind of AIDS fatigue [in the U.S.], and having the conference back in Washington, D.C., is a big step."
AIDS 2012 features an impressive list of prominent speakers, including former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as philanthropist and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, and entertainers Elton John and Whoopi Goldberg.
And, while the conference will bring together prominent voices in the AIDS world, including scientists, policymakers, advocates and more, connecting these leaders to the HIV/AIDS community is key.
The conference features a 190,000-square-foot park called the Global Village, which is free to the public and offers cultural presentations, wellness workshops and more.
"One thing that makes this conference really unique is that it brings together communities, policymakers, leaders from science to chart the path for the HIV/AIDS epidemic," Jain said. "[The conference] has real, substantive connections to the community."
Leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDs suggest that ingenuity and visibility may be key to combating the epidemic, and this year's International AIDS Conference will highlight the initiatives and increase the awareness necessary to make the unrelenting epidemic history.
"We have to keep our finger on the pulse," Nipper said, "and continue to find innovative ways to prevent exposure to HIV."
Joshua R. Weaver is The Root's editorial assistant.