By Marce Abare
I’m from rural New England. My childhood house was actually inside a cow pasture. Looking for a ticket out, the appeal of going to college was primarily the chance to see new places. Initially it was through travel that I began to appreciate the rawness, both beautiful and ill, that determine the environments in which we live.
I had the opportunity to work at a pediatric hospital in South Africa in 2002. It was a place where antiretroviral drugs weren’t available to average citizens unless they could enroll in a research study. While witnessing HIV-positive infants and toddlers die needlessly for lack of medicine, I realized that there are specific reasons why people facing the same circumstances – in this case HIV infection – can and should be expected to undergo completely different outcomes based on where they live, the color of their skin, how much money and social capital can be called upon for help. Maybe it was easier for me to see the stark contrast created by injustice while traveling, but upon returning home to North Carolina, where there were hundreds of North Carolinians on waiting lists for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, I started wondering how different these places really are. Between Durban and Durham, what seemed the greatest distinctions were the nature of public rhetoric and the scale and visibility of a problem; of course the roots of social injustice were the same.
Looking back to a decade ago, I left South Africa brimming with new knowledge but without tools to act.
The 2004 International AIDS Conference (IAC) filled in this missing link. I traveled to Bangkok and found myself in the midst of a powerful, well-versed and goal-focused community of Thai people living with HIV, drug users, sex workers and allies from around the world standing together, that I understood the spectrum of avenues of engagement through which each of us can play a role that makes a difference.
Whether it’s learning to use media to raise public awareness of industry tactics to generate profit in contrast with access shortfalls, understanding proceedings in which trade policies are determined, or shaping legislative or regulatory decisions that must be reoriented to a public health paradigm—the world’s best minds in activism gather at the IAC every year.
I am particularly proud to be an AMSA member this year, when for the first time in more than two decades, thanks to President Obama’s leadership in lifting in the ban on entry for those living with HIV, the IAC will be held on U.S. soil.
I urge you to attend. Health professional students will be marching alongside the world in Washington, D.C. Our message is simple: make access to treatment and prevention universal; address the lack of adequate housing, education, income opportunities and food security; reverse discriminatory policies that reinforce marginalization and fuel the spread of HIV.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity - join us!!