Written by Isaac Olushola | Project Manager Global Fund

The 12th IAS Conference on HIV Science, IAS 2023, concluded in Brisbane, marking a significant stride in collaborative efforts to combat HIV. Over 5,000 participants from around the world gathered to discuss the latest in HIV research. A notable moment was the substantial protest emphasizing the U=U public health message, with scientists, advocates, and clinicians uniting in their chant: “Sex is good, sex is fun, sex with zero risk.”

During the IAS 2023 conference, my contributions were multifaceted. I participated in a special session tailored for Youth Hub Seed Grant recipients, honing my public speaking skills. In the Young Leaders Programme, I delivered a presentation titled ‘Stronger Together: Youth-Led Collaboration in the HIV Response’, emphasizing the critical role of youth in the HIV discourse. I took the lead in introducing the Youth Hub, a platform designed ‘By young people, for young people’, highlighting its significance in the HIV response. Additionally, I moderated a symposium delving into the complexities of sexualized drug use among key populations, exploring community-led solutions. Engaging with WHO representatives during a private session with plenary speakers, I passionately called for the inclusion of youth in their policy development.

Unveiling the Future of HIV Science: Revelations and Reflections from IAS 2023
IAS 2023, the 12th Conference on HIV Science. Brisbane, Australia. 23/07/2023. YLMIX – Young Leaders Mixer. In this photo: young leaders pose for group photos\r\rCopyright Max Mason-Hubers / IAS

The IAS Conference, a biennial event, serves as a beacon for those passionate about the scientific facets of HIV. This year, discussions ranged from the potential of social network approaches for enhanced testing to the nuances of PrEP. However, a recent finding that 66.1% of clinicians failed to share the U=U public health message with their clients was a significant point of contention.

The scientific community remains hopeful about future discoveries, with significant attention paid to broadly neutralising antibodies (bNAbs) as both a treatment and prevention. The recommendation to use bNAbs in babies across at-risk communities was particularly intriguing. However, the looming threat of climate change and its implications on pandemic preparedness, such as supply chain breakdown and increased waste production, brought a sobering contrast to the optimism.

Unveiling the Future of HIV Science: Revelations and Reflections from IAS 2023
IAS 2023, the 12th Conference on HIV Science. Brisbane, Australia. 25/07/2023. YHWS – Youth Hub Workshop. In this photo, a participant talks to the group about a project they previously undertook\r\rCopyright Max Mason-Hubers / IAS

Community-based solutions, like the peer-to-peer model established in Chirundu, a town on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, showcased the power of direct communication. Engaging with female sex workers to communicate the benefits of PrEP led to a staggering 91% uptake, emphasizing the effectiveness of community-driven initiatives.

A quote that resonated deeply was, “Words have power: They bestow or remove dignity, build or break stigma, and divide or unite the HIV response.” This profound statement serves as a reminder of the immense influence of language in shaping perceptions, attitudes, and actions in the HIV response.

Unveiling the Future of HIV Science: Revelations and Reflections from IAS 2023
IAS 2023, the 12th Conference on HIV Science. Brisbane, Australia. 22/07/2023. PMCUREF – HIV Cure & Immunotherapy Forum. In this photo: Audience\r\rCopyright Max Mason-Hubers / IAS

Reflecting on the event, the emphasis on a people-centric approach was a standout takeaway. The session on “Putting people first in the prevention, treatment, and care of HPV-related cancers for people living with HIV” was particularly enlightening. This approach aligns with YouthRISE’s advocacy for the inclusion of young people, especially those who use drugs, in harm reduction funding and related programs. Additionally, learning about the “Geneva Patient”, the sixth individual considered “cured” of HIV, offered a fresh perspective on potential HIV treatments.

The conference concluded on a positive note, celebrating the improvements in HIV-related diagnosis and healthcare, especially in Africa and Sydney’s near full prevention of HIV transmission. Yet, the challenges discussed serve as a reminder of the journey ahead. The event was not just a learning experience but a source of inspiration, fostering a sense of determination and excitement for future collaborations.