More than 18,000 scientists, health advocates, and donors attended the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) Summit held in South Africa on Monday to discuss recent roadblocks and potential threats to successfully fighting the disease.
The five-day International AIDS Conference was first held 16 years ago, after Nelson Mandela had urged leaders to fight against the incurable disease which he described as “one of the greatest threats humankind has faced.” In the past 35 years, approximately 39 million people have died because of AIDS. Most of those infected with AIDS live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Among the people who attended at the conference were UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, British singer Elton John, Prince Harry, and American actress Charlize Theron.
In her speech to the summit delegates, Theron used her platform on AIDS to talk about social issues, particularly in light of recent police-civilian tensions in the U.S.
“HIV is not transmitted by sex,” Theron announced. “It is transmitted by sexism, racism.”
Theron continued by discussing how AIDS still plagues humanity because of a social divide between white and black people.
“We value white skin more than black skin,” she told the crowd, adding that the African-originated pandemic is predominantly the result of social discrimination in the West.
“The solution is not just in laboratories and conferences. It is in our communities and on the street,” Theron told health experts and scientists, who were, moments before, expressing frustration on the stage about the numerous dead-ends in scientific AIDS research and the global failure to produce an effective vaccine against the disease.
The actress and AIDS charity founder continued by urging the crowd to take part in social activism and “effectively reach young people and get them effectively engaged,” emphasizing that without focusing on social justice activism, “nothing is going to change in the fight.”
Theron’s rhetoric resembled that of former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who had stood at the same podium years earlier and insisted to scientists that the disease was caused by poverty and not the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Mbeki denied millions of infected South Africans access to antiretroviral drug treatment.
A Harvard doctoral study found years later that due to Mbeki’s anti-medicinal policies, more than 330,000 people died prematurely from HIV/AIDS between 2000 and 2005, and at least 35,000 babies were born with HIV, which could have been prevented. Mbeki refused to comment on the study but did not deny the findings.
“It was a very painful moment in the world," Chris Beyrer, the president of the International AIDS Society, told AFP.
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