Fenton on the road: The International AIDS Conference

The International AIDS Conference (IAC), held every other year, is a major gathering and rallying point for the global community focused on the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. This year, the IAC was held in Durban, South Africa, the first time since the year 2000 that this major conference was held in Africa. The atmosphere was electric.

So much has changed in the sixteen years since the conference was last held in Durban. Then, only 700,000 people were able to receive the treatment needed to stave off the worst effects of the virus. Since then, the overall HIV infection rate has dropped by 35 percent globally, and today, more than 15 million people are able to access life-saving, and life-changing medicines.

Remarkable progress indeed, but not nearly enough. As such, this year’s conference drew high-profile personalities dedicated to the fight against HIV, including Charlize Theron, Elton John and Britain’s Prince Harry, as well as real-world men and women dealing with the consequences and stigma of the disease, to remind us that there’s still work to do. Each and every speaker took great care to speak plainly and issue a strong call to action to end HIV within a generation.

They put special attention to calling on policymakers to include all people affected by HIV/AIDS, especially those who have been left behind because of stigma. People like sex workers. Adolescent girls. Drug users. Prisoners. Men who have sex with men. Because in too many countries around the world, these sub-sets of the population have been denied access to the education, prevention and treatment that others have been allowed, and as a result, the rates of HIV in some places, and among some groups, has actually increased. Many spoke of the need to educate men on the role they too must play to reduce the disproportionately high rates of HIV infection among women and girls.

The advent of social media has been a major game-changer in HIV advocacy, giving advocates and activists a platform to have their voices heard. After all, in 2000, only by way of coverage in traditional media outlets such as the New York Times or UK Guardian or an evening news broadcast could someone not attending the conference hear about it. Today, social media connects our world, and knowing how to use these tools for social good is a unique skill. Fenton’s own Michelle Hunsberger and  Zack Langway led a training to build the digital capacity and skills of advocates and activists looking to achieve an HIV-free future for all.

Fenton’s social media expertise allowed our client’s IAC message to reach more than 5.2 million Twitter users alone in more than 53 countries, and laid a foundation for more advocates to tell their stories on social media in a way that moves audiences to act.