A huge, six-day international conference on HIV-AIDS got underway in Washington, Sunday, with a rally and march.
25,000 delegates are expected to attend the series of meetings to exchange scientific and policy ideas in order to develop strategies to combat HIV-AIDS. The conference is being held in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years because only recently has America relaxed formerly-stringent rules which generally kept HIV-positive visitors out of the country.
Attendee Doris Wahl's son died of AIDS in 1989, and she has been an activist since then, pushing federal and state governments to do more.
"You have people in the South that are still on waiting lists, waiting for their medication, and, to me, [that's] not a good thing," explained Wahl.
Some people are here at the conference because, in this crowd, it's OK to disclose the fact that you are HIV-positive.
23-year old Imani Walters says she was infected by her partner, who did not disclose his health status to her. "Here," said Walters, "you don't have to worry about whether you got it or not. They will drink from your cup, they will eat off your plate… And it feels really good to be treated like a normal person."
Several thousand of the conferees gathered for an afternoon rally. The Rev. Al Sharpton asked all faith communities to comfort those infected with HIV. Sharpton called on all ministers, rabbis, and imams to follow the example of Jesus and comfort the afflicted, and, if they don't, he suggested "hand in your collar."
Many here also want more governmental funding for AIDS prevention and education. And some in the crowd think individual actions also count. Pat Evans-Whitfield is a health department worker in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She wishes more HIV-positive clients followed the state law requiring they engage only in protected sex. Evans-Whitfield says her office sometimes refers clients to local prosecutors for criminal charges, "Because they're infecting someone else. And, at some point, we have to say, 'Hey look -- this has got to stop.'"
Although treatments for HIV have improved survival rates tremendously in recent years, not everyone gets the medicines.
Organizers of the conference believe, around the world, 5,000 people die of AIDS every single day.