Former president Nelson Mandela and Treatment Action Campaign chairperson Zackie Achmat have been invited to address plenary sessions of the prestigious 14th World AIDS conference, which begins in Barcelona in Spain on Sunday (7 July).

Mandela will close the conference together with former US president Bill Clinton, while Achmat will deliver an address on HIV treatment access as a human right.

Over 200 presentations will also be made by South African scientists and researchers in smaller sessions of the conference.  

These include presentations by the University of Natal’s Professor Alan Whiteside and Dr Quarraisha Abdool-Karim, the University of Cape Town’s Dr Nicol Coetzee, Wits University’s Professor James McIntyre, the AIDS Law Project’s Liesl Gerntholtz and the Medical Research Council’s Malegapuru Makgoba.

The conference, which takes place every two years, is expected to attract over 15 000 delegates under the theme “knowledge and commitment for action”.

“This is the world’s largest and most important HIV/AIDS conference,” says co-chair Dr Jordi Casabona. “It will help to translate the latest scientific advances into action. It will address all aspects of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, from science to community responses, and human rights to economics. It will present a renewed opportunity for action.”

Initially convened as a scientific forum, in recent years the conference has also addressed the social aspects of HIV/AIDS and attracts a unique mix of scientists, activists and people living with HIV/AIDS.

A key political focus of the conference is likely to be the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria, with developed countries particularly the USA facing heavy criticism from AIDS activists for failing to make sizeable contributions to the fund.

Some $10-billion a year is needed to fight the disease, according to the United Nations. This is 0.05% of the gross national product of the world’s eight richest countries. However, the fund has received donations of only $500 million so far.

AIDS pressure group ActUp Paris last week accused the G8 industrialized countries, of being “responsible for the deaths of 10 000 persons every day” from AIDS for failing to give more to the fund.

The run-up to the conference has been marred by the Spanish government’s refusal to grant visas to a number of delegates from developing countries on the grounds that they cannot prove their ability to support themselves while in Spain.

According to the Stuart Flavell, international co-ordinator of the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, “the conference programme could be decimated unless some assurance is made on the part of the Spanish government that all visas for delegates will be granted in time.”