Beginning this Sunday, more than 20,000 AIDS scientists, researchers, medical providers, patients and advocates from all over the world will convene in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS Conference. Organizers say they are excited as the event comes at a turning point in the fight against the global pandemic.

“We have the tools, for the first time, to end the AIDS epidemic. And this conference will provide us the opportunity to lay that out,” said Phill Wilson, director of the Black AIDS Institute and a member of the AIDS 2012 Conference Coordinating Committee, in a promotional video.

But HIV/AIDS activists are not as excited about the fact that President Obama will not attend the conference, saying it sends a discouraging message about the president’s commitment to HIV/AIDS.

“The news that President Obama has elected to skip the International AIDS Conference—which takes place at the Convention Center near his home in Washington—speak volumes,” stated Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), which provides free HIV/AIDS medical care to over 176,000 people in the U.S. and 25 other countries abroad. “…It appears the President does not want to engage the AIDS communities—and with good reason. It is truly a sad day in history, a sadder day in the battle against AIDS and a sad reflection on the Obama presidency.”

In a July 16 press release, the White House said the president would provide a brief video message to welcome conference attendees. Additionally, senior administration officials will participate in the conference, including: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Eric Goosby, Director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy Grant Colfax and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci.

The White House also touted its accomplishments. “We have launched the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States to prevent and treat HIV in America,” the press release read. “Globally, the Obama Administration has committed to treating 6 million people by the end of 2013….”

But AHF representatives point to the decrease in AIDS funding in President Obama’s 2013 budget and the long waiting lists for the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAP) as signs of the president’s “silence” on the issue. And his absence further puts his commitment into question.

“If the decision…was President Obama’s own, then shame on him. If it was a decision based on advice from his staff, then he is being ill served by his advisors,” said Tom Myers, chief of public affairs and general counsel for AHF. “In essence, the questions people will ask during the entire week of the conference will be: Why won’t President Obama speak on AIDS? Is he afraid of getting heckled again by AIDS advocates, as he did in New Haven back in October 2010? Embarrassed by the actions—or inaction—on AIDS that seems to be a hallmark of his administration? Or did he merely get a better offer, a whistle stop campaign appearance that trumps AIDS?”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO