© International AIDS Society Steve Forrest

AIDS conference embraces Amsterdam

All eyes were on Amsterdam during AIDS 2018; an international mega conference featuring loaded subjects, delicate meetings and a comfortable Dutch backdrop.

AIDS 2018 was a truly impressive conference. At least 15,000 people from all kinds of countries travelled to Amsterdam between 23 and 27 July to attend – in the middle of high season. Every aspect was closely followed by the 900 journalists present. And to make it even more loaded: AIDS is still a delicate subject in many countries. There are not many cities that can host a conference like this successfully, believes co-organizer Lambert Grijns. "Amsterdam can do it."

Basic conditions for events

It is worth pointing out that the AIDS conference fell during the tourist high season and immediately before the popular Gay Pride event, which also attracted many international visitors. "Fortunately, Amsterdam meets all the basic conditions for large-scale events", says Grijns, who until recently was the director of the Social Development Department at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "It has top venues like the Amsterdam RAI conference center, low prices, the historic canals, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, plenty of good hotel accommodation and a great deal of experience. There is also a new metro link connecting the RAI conference center and Amsterdam Central Station.

The Netherlands has more to offer

But the Netherlands and Amsterdam had more to offer AIDS 2018. And that added value was primarily a reflection of the typically Dutch 'polder model'; the Dutch tendency to involve as many people and organizations as possible. Grijns: "The current success of AIDS 2018 is related to our inclusive approach, in which everyone is heard and gets to have their say. If you come to the Netherlands, you can expect cooperation with all players. We are geared up for that."

Science, industry and activism

Grijns was formerly the AIDS ambassador and has been involved in the preparations for this conference since 2013. The event naturally had a conventional scientific section with lectures, knowledge-sharing and new developments. And there was an impressive exhibition hall for the pharmaceuticals industry. But above all, science and industry went hand-in-hand with an activist segment which had a strong presence at the event.

The Netherlands is open-minded

That segment was largely made up of people who live with HIV and with stigmas. The risk group; primarily drugs users, gays, sex workers, prisoners and transgenders. But also a large number of young people. People had flown in from all kinds of countries. From Ukraine, Brazil, Malaysia: but also many from Zimbabwe, for example. They came to attend debates, films and free workshops. And to call for attention and recognition. "Thanks to smart medication, patients feel well and there is no risk of infection", explains Grijns. "And the Netherlands is open-minded, people feel safe here."

Virtually everything translated

In their slipstream there followed a large group of public figures and celebrities such as Prince Harry, Elton John, Charlize Theron, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. The European Commissioner also attended, as did ministers and numerous dignitaries – particularly from Eastern European countries, because the HIV risk group receives little attention there. Grijns: "There is a special platform for Eastern Europe and we are translating a significant proportion into Russian. That's very expensive, but we feel it is essential. Because, particularly in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the number of cases of AIDS is on the rise again. And among young people."

Opening ceremony broadcast live

The opening ceremony was broadcast live. There was a particular focus on the victims of the MH17 air disaster in July 2017. Among those killed were prominent Dutch AIDS researchers, including AIDS expert and professor of infectious diseases Joep Lange. A ballet performance was given to mark the tragedy and all victims of AIDS.

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