The country's largest AIDS conference is Chicago-bound this year for the first time in its 15-year history. The United States Conference on AIDS (USCA), sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will be Nov. 9-13 at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers downtown. The conference has never before been held in the Midwest.
"We got lucky," said Cynthia Tucker, director of prevention and community partnerships for AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC) and chair of the USCA host committee. Tucker believes that the conference is an opportunity for Chicago to showcase the work of local service providers, both individually and collectively.
The three-day event is expected to bring in more than 3,500 participants and 150 vendors, with workshops on drug use, domestic violence, HIV prevention in communities of color, transgender health and youth, among others. The event is being hosted by a committee composed of 127 local service providers from the Chicago Department of Public Health, the Illinois Department of Public Health and organizations such as Center on Halsted, Test Positive Aware Network and Vida/SIDA.
The focus of this year's conference will be on gay men, the risk group that experts say is most severely affected by AIDS right now. Tucker said that Chicago was awarded the USCA, in part, because the city is doing a lot to cut down on infection rates among gay men. That's possible, she said, because Chicago organizations talk to each other and share resources through the AFC Service Providers Council, something that has set Chicago apart from many other cities.
"We have a very good surveillance system here in Chicago for tracking … who is positive, who has AIDS," Tucker said. "We are very organized in Chicago when it comes to care and prevention."
Rosa E. MartĂnez ColĂ"n, assistant director of CALOR and community co-chair of this year's conference, said that Chicago is not only a "model for services," but the city with the fourth largest AIDS problem. ColĂ"n said that if Chicago is to continue in its fight against AIDS, service organizations will need more funding and fast.
"I hope that having this conference here is a wake-up call, and we can recharge ourselves," she said. "It's incredible the lack of funding that we have right now."
Last year in Illinois, AIDS prevention and care was flat-funded; while the number of HIV-positive people needing resources and financial assistance increased due a poor economy, funding did not. Hard economic times forced the closure of Better Existence with HIV (BEHIV), a two decade-old AIDS service organization in Edgewater earlier this year.
AIDS advocates believe the USCA is an opportunity to spotlight those hardships in Chicago.
"It will be a time for us to put our local politicians and stakeholders to pinpoint their stance on HIV prevention," Tucker said.
ColĂ"n hopes the conference will also put youth issues on the spot. She feels that youth in Chicago aren't worried about HIV because drugs have made AIDS manageable. ColĂ"n said she is pushing for more dialogue at the conference on young people and AIDS because, she said "in past conferences, there has not been a lot of attention given to youth. … HIV/AIDS is not a reality anymore for them."
Registration for the conference is open to all. Admission starts at $400, but scholarships are available through application. For more information go to www.nmac.org/index/2011-usca