Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Conference ethics - my take on the AIDS talkfest 2014

At any given time there are thousands of large conferences held all over the globe. Many of these conferences are mere make-belief, they are set up by conference organisers in hope of extracting good money from conferences goers in order to make a profit. They are not infrequently organized by equally dodgy open access outfits in the publishing industry. I won’t mention names here, but you know who you are.

Then there are other conferences where one wonders why they still exist in the form and shape in which they are held. A case in point is the International AIDS Conference. This biennial event was held in 2014 for the 20th time, this time in Melbourne, Australia. In the old days the location of this conference was considered to be an important political decision, as its mere magnitude guaranteed the AIDS community in the host country a high public profile for their cause. The good and great would come to address the conference (Bob Geldof and Bill Clinton offered the necessary glitz in Melbourne) and say nice things about people with HIV/AIDS and – more recently - the need to provide affordable medicines to people in developing countries. Well, that was after the advent of life-preserving medication. Prior to that there was a much more real sense of urgency, people fought over trial designs and the meaning of however fragile trial outcomes and unjust discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS. One conference, held in South Africa, was addressed farcically by an ANC government representative steeped in deep denial about the role of HIV in AIDS.

Today AIDS is primarily a disease killing the world’s poor. That’s true for the USA, but really this uncomfortable fact holds true for the global south. Access to affordable medicines has greatly improved, but millions who could clinically benefit from HIV medicines have to date no affordable access. Worse, the economic crisis in the West meant a scaling back of donor programs, leaving those who managed to access life-preserving medicines in some instances with unexpectedly having nowhere to turn to due to program closures. A great deal of managerial incompetence and corruption in countries in sub-Saharan Africa means that people in need of HIV medicines are not receiving them. Preventable deaths occur frequently.

Given this background, holding a conference such as this in Melbourne, Australia, of all places, truly borders on the absurd. Between 14,000 and 16,000 conference goers flew from all over the world to attend this latest AIDS talkfest in a rich location where HIV/AIDS, frankly, affects a fairly small, very well clinically cared for number of people. Much as I appreciate the joy that must come to North American and European conference goers from travelling to Down Under, this has been a truly bizarre location to hold this conference in.

Nothing much was truly achieved by this giant assault on our environment courtesy of thousands of academics and activists circumventing the globe to talk to each other in an endless stream of sessions and meetings. In the age of email and tools such as Skype that could have been achieved with less environmental destruction.

So, talking about conference ethics (I will trademark this term!), is it unreasonable to ask of organisers of such conference to consider only locations where actually large numbers of people still fight to survive this disease and perhaps give locations a miss where AIDS has become a manageable chronic condition, and where the civil rights of HIV infected people are thankfully well protected?

I quietly assumed to this point that much is served by holding such gigantic meetings at all, alas I am skeptical. After all, relevant clinical research will be published quickly in relevant journals these days, the time delay is negligible, researchers will know each other by means of email or Skype or teleconferences. Activists worth their money would have figured out ways to let their donor monies go further by not attending these talkfests and spending the cash instead on actual work aimed at furthering their objectives.

Guess if travellers in the AIDS business need to travel - usually on other's dime -  at least they ought to travel to places where much work needs to be done, not to places that are comparably well-off. Perhaps not as nice as Melbourne, but slightly more justifiable.


  1. A grand-slam home run, Udo. To reverse Trotsky's comment on an essay by Lenin: "Every word is correct, and some of them twice!"

  2. Hey Udo, very insightful and incisive, had not thought about conference ethics before. Totally agree with you.


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