The U.S. Conference on AIDS, held this year in Chicago for the first time, opened with a welcoming plenary breakfast that featured major names in HIV/AIDS prevention.
Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services headlined the morning.
But the moment that left many talking later in the day was a protest that interrupted the introduction of Sebelius. As Sebelius was announced with much fanfare, a large group of protesters with posters marched out and stole the microphone.
The group, protesting on behalf of Asian Pacific Islanders, demanded that their voices be heard in HIV prevention. They came bearing signs that read "Our Lives Matter."
"We cannot to wait," said Sharon Day of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force. "We, the first Americans, can no longer be the last in line for funding."
In what appeared to be a last-minute switch, National AIDS Policy Director Jeff Crowley took the stage in place of Sebelius. Crowley had been scheduled to speak later in the program.
Crowley challenged HIV service providers to adapt to healthcare changes and medical advancements to end AIDS. He called for focus and unity from AIDS organizations as pre-exposure prophylaxis ( taking HIV meds to prevent becoming infected with HIV ) is now a tool on the horizon.
"That is great news but right now it's a research study," said Crowley, who pressed providers to think realistically about how new science can be used to end HIV/AIDS. "I would ask all of you in this time of fundamental change to really seize the moment."
Protesters appeared a second time as Sebelius attempted to take the stage. She acknowledged the group before they sat down.
According to staffers for the National Minority AIDS Council, the organization that hosts the annual conference, organizers had anticipated the protest, although the last-minute swap of presenters appeared to be unscripted.
Sebelius spoke of the Obama administration's commitment to ending AIDS. She said the president had requested $50 million in additional funds for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which currently suffers from lack of funds, leaving thousands on a waiting list for HIV/AIDS treatment.
Despite the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which will provide health insurance to Americans by 2014, Sebelius said that the administration remains committed to Ryan White funding ( that money has funded HIV/AIDS treatment for patients without insurance who cannot afford to pay ) . The secretary added that her department is working to reallocate funding to communities considered high-risk currently.
Sebelius echoed the sentiments of many at the conference, who argue that the current moment is critical for mobilizing to end AIDS. Experts say that given new advances in science, an end to the virus is on the horizon, but those advancements have also led to apathy as the those who contract HIV and get treatment can live healthier and longer lives than ever before. Further, significant funding increases are needed if those treatments are to be implemented.
"We have some very important questions to ask ourselves today," Sebelius said. "What will we do with this opportunity … will we watch HIV/AIDS further recede from the national spotlight?"
In a special press conference after her appearance, Sebelius reaffirmed her commitment to Ryan White funding, stating that those funds will now fill "cracks in the system, not gaping holes." She also commented on the morning's protest.
"They were saying 'our lives matter,' and my response is, you bet they do," she said.
Thousands attended the breakfast, the first of four days of conference events.
David Ernesto Munar, president of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, welcomed the conference on behalf of the host committee.
Munar encouraged conference attendees to adopt a Chicago attitude while in town.
"Chicagoans are a roll up your sleeves kind of people," Munar said. "I hope the hardy spirit of Chicago rubs off on you," because, he said, there is much work to be done to end AIDS.
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.