The big red dot on the map of the International Aids Conference tells me “You are here.” This has the dual effect of helping me navigate to my next session and precipitating an existential crisis, a bit like when people ask me “how are you doing?” Veterans of the HIV/AIDS field sometimes refer to themselves as dinosaurs, which I’m marginally certain relates to how long they’ve persevered in the battle for public health, rather than a reference to the odds of mass extinction by comet or brain size relative to body weight. Not completely certain, mind you, but sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut.

Personally, I think of myself as a dinosaur of conference attendance, immersed in the alphabet soup of acronyms that are bandied about by professionals in their respective fields of interest, but representing little more than strings of gibberish to the rest of the universe: APHA, APA, SPSSI, WPA, USCA, HPLS, NHPC, IAC, XYZ and PDQ. Okay, I made the last two up, but you get the point, although I’m fairly sure you can find an obscure professional organization for xylophonists or project directors in quality assurance that have laid claim to those particular alphabetic combinations. I just haven’t been invited to speak at them yet, distressing because I’m rather proud of my skills with a xylophone. It’s only a matter of time until my musical genius is recognized.

Unrecognized xylophonic genius aside, on my way to the IAC Exhibitor Hall today, I found myself hypnotized by the sign telling me in no uncertain terms that “I was here”. It seems strangely absolute and definitive. Where exactly was I? A quick personal inventory told me that my feet were aching, my tongue was tired, if no tied, and that I was surrounded by hordes of conference-goers, most of which looked like they were ready to be drafted as extras in a zombie movie, lurching back and forth with glassy eyes and howling at friends across the lobby. And with a lack of foresight, I left my zombie survival guide at home. It’s remarkably easy to feel a little lost and overwhelmed in the face of the cacophony of sounds, signs, faces, and emotions.

I had just left the Global Villages where there was drumming, a welcome by Mayor Gray drowned out by protestors demanding more specific data, and I’m pretty confident I heard a choir singing somewhere. I had an hour and a half until my next presentation, and somehow I had fixated on the “You are here” sign, and it started me thinking. On an upbeat note, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s had just that morning stated that we knew which road we had to take towards an AIDS-free generation, the equivalent of a combined “you are here” sign and a “you are headed here” for our chosen profession. But do we truly understand the road we are on? We all agree about the need to marry biomedical advances with behavioral interventions, but how do we effectively accomplish that. What about mustering the political and organizational will? What about infrastructure and community readiness? Where is the roadmap for addressing that? Just as all politics are local, it would seem that the roads to an AIDS-Free generation would be local as well. I may be here but how will you and I get over there? Perhaps it is premature to declare that we know which road to take to vanquish HIV/AIDS. We should temper our enthusiasm for slogans and understand the winding road we travel in greater depth. In the words of essayist Samuel Johnson, “The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” Maybe we should change the conference maps to read “you are near here, we haven’t agreed how you get there”.

Written by Dr. Miriam Vega


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