World AIDS Day
World AIDS Day (file photo)

For the first time since Congress lifted a ban preventing HIV-positive people from traveling or immigrating to the United States, the 19th International AIDS conference hits U.S. soil.

Passed unanimously by the Senate in 1987, the 22-year ban once regulated travel visas and green cards based on HIV status. As a result, some activists, experts and researchers were discouraged from traveling to the 1990 conference — the last time it was held in the United States.

“We feel it’s a historic moment at the end of huge breakthroughs over the last three years,” says Dr. Diane Havlir, co-chair of the conference and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s the beginning of the end of the epidemic.”

AIDS 2012 is the world’s largest gathering of HIV/AIDS researchers, policymakers, medical professionals, and advocates. According to Havlir, conference attendance is over 20,000 this year, up about 30 percent from last year.

“[The conference is] the sum of what we’ve learned, and how we are going to move forward,” Havlir says.

She recalls that 1990 conference. It was held in San Francisco and heavily boycotted in the wake of the new ban.

“We were at a very grim, depressing time in the epidemic,” Havlir says. “It was spiraling out of control. We didn’t have a good combination of treatments and we had grossly underestimated the impact of the epidemic globally.”

The George H. W. Bush administration eventually created a 10-day visa allowing travelers to keep their HIV status private, specifically for the conference.

But, earlier that year, a Dutch AIDS educator had been detained by immigration officials on his way to a different HIV conference, when he didn’t declare he was HIV-positive and HIV medication was found in his luggage. Eventually, with the help of supporters, he was released after five days. Yet, it raised fear that others might be detained en route to the International AIDS Conference a few months later.

After previous tries, the Bush administration voted to finally lift the ban with Obama’s administration completing the process a year later.

The United States was not alone in preventing people with HIV from entering the country. At the time the ban was lifted, 11 other countries had similar bans: Armenia, Brunei, Iraq, Libya, Moldova, Oman, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Sudan.

“When that ban was here, we couldn’t have a conference such as this,” says Dr. Kevin Fenton, Director of the CDC National Center for HIV/AIDS. “With the ban being lifted, with this administration’s leadership in HIV, both domestically and abroad, this is a really good time for the conference to be back.”

The conference highlights new research and HIV data on topics such as black men who have sex with men, racial disparities in HIV infection, and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Havlir says the findings at the conference are significant in finally ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“We’re not saying next week, next month, or next year,” Havlir says. “But, because of the data on prevention, the data on male circumcision, and promising research on a cure and vaccine, we’re at a point that we’re talking about the beginning of the end.”

Fenton is also hopeful.

“Even in the land of plenty, we have major issues left in the fight,” Fenton says. “I’m hoping that this will be a time to reflect, get that sense of urgency back, and do what needs to be done.”

The conference starts today and runs until July 27 in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Tyeese Gaines is a physician-journalist with over 10 years of print and broadcast experience, now serving as health editor for theGrio.com. Dr. Ty is also a practicing emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Follow her on twitter at @doctorty.