As advocates, officials, and health care professionals gather in Durban, South Africa this week for the AIDS2016 conference, another group of people have moved out and not by choice.

25 Jul 2016

In an attempt to make Durban appear more attractive to attendees of one of the world’s largest conferences on any global health or development issue, homeless people, drug dealers, and sex workers were removed from the central city. In other words, the very people who are at increased risk of contracting HIV and not receiving treatment are now even more vulnerable, and essentially rendered invisible.

The sanitization of the city set the tone for the conference. For instance, organizations like UNAIDS have called for increased investment in harm reduction and HIV prevention measures for people who use drugs—calls that are echoed around the globe by civil society and activists. And indeed, one of the AIDS2016 conference’s stated objectives is “promoting HIV responses that are supported by and tailored to the needs of at-risk populations or people living with HIV,” including people who use drugs.

21st -international -AIDS-conference

Yet people who use drugs are largely ignored inside the conference. What’s more, of the 446 abstracts that contain the keywords “harm reduction,” “drug use,” and “drug policy,” only six were accepted for oral presentation and three for poster discussion—an exceedingly small number considering how important this population is considered by those trying to end AIDS by 2030.

Quite literally, the rights of people who use drugs, and the policies that restrict access to harm reduction and health services, are not on the agenda at AIDS2016. Even if one counts the events held by people who use drugs and harm reduction activists in the Global Village, there are fewer than 40 that focus on these areas. If it wasn’t for the last-minute efforts of a few under-resourced individuals working for supportive organizations, there would literally be no place for people who use drugs to meet and discuss their issues, or to receive the life-saving harm reduction commodities they need.

Due to this last-minute push, organizers were able to tick the “inclusive” box. But while we have a place to congregate in the Global Village, people who use drugs are still left out of the conference’s main proceedings.

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