07/22/2012 11:39 am ET Updated Sep 21, 2012

International AIDS Conference in DC: The Weary World Gathers in Hope

When the international AIDS conference was last held in Washington, D.C., in June 1987, "only" 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with the fatal illness by then; 21,000 had already died since it was first recognized six years earlier. Worldwide, 51,069 AIDS cases had been officially reported to that point.

As the 19th International AIDS Conference gets underway in Washington this Sunday,
the number of Americans living with HIV is now more than 23 times the total number of cases identified in the entire world last time the meeting was held there.

Consider what a quarter-century more of an unending, still-deadly plague has wrought:

* The Kaiser Family Foundation this month reports that more than an estimated 1.1 million people in this country are living with HIV; one in five of them don't yet know it.

* Most new HIV infections in the U.S. (61 percent in 2009) continue to be among men who have sex with other men (regardless of their personal identity).

* Of those diagnosed with late-stage HIV disease (AIDS), 466,351 have been black; 426,102 white; and 190,263 Latinos.

* By the end of 2009, an estimated 641,976 Americans had died from AIDS.

* The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that 33.3 million people worldwide are living with HIV, 22.5 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa alone. To date AIDS has killed more than 30 million people.

As many as 25,000 people from every corner of the globe will gather in Washington to listen to inspiring speeches, certainly, but most importantly to share information.

Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, the sharing of information -- comparing notes on what works, why and how -- has been the life line that has fueled individuals' will to live and entire social movements.

Of the hundreds, even thousands, of plenaries, presentations and poster sessions, I've whittled down the massive conference to focus my own reporting: new frontiers in the science of HIV research; costs and patents of antiretroviral drugs; AIDS activism today; sessions related to men who have sex with men; HIV among those age 50 and older; and efforts to decriminalize HIV.

Naturally much of the business of information sharing will be done informally as men and women of every hue and language reconnect with colleagues from the four corners of the globe. They will share what they've learned, mark their losses and celebrate their triumphs.

Some of those triumphs will be grand: a possible new treatment in development. Some will mark changes in hidebound policies to streamline the delivery of medical services or to fund prevention campaigns that speak to their intended audience in language and images they understand--whether it's picturebook images for low-literate individuals or safe-sex 'how-to' porn films for gay men.

Arguably the greatest triumphs will be measured in the number of new infections averted by prevention efforts, the number of people living with HIV instead of dead from AIDS because of effective medical care, the babies born uninfected with HIV by making sure their HIV-positive mothers receive the medication they need during pregnancy to prevent transmission to their babies.

Throughout the area surrounding the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C.'s Mount Vernon section, there will be art exhibits, displays of portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a film festival featuring past and current documentary and feature films about the epidemic.

There will be a march in the streets and plenty of speeches, by former President Bill Clinton and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others.

And there will be, must be, a candlelight vigil on Sunday night, July 22, the first night of the AIDS conference. Since the first AIDS candlelight vigil, in San Francisco, in 1983, men and women have marched in silence in the dark holding candles to represent the spirits of their dear departed, and symbolize the hope that sometimes flickers. In that first vigil, a group of gay men with AIDS also carried a banner that said, "FIGHTING FOR OUR LIVES."

Thirty-one years after HIV first cut short the lives of young gay men, 25 years since the global HIV/AIDS community of scientists, physicians, nurses, caregivers, activists and HIV-positive people last gathered in Washington, D.C., the weary world gathers to share the hope that 25 years from now the International AIDS conferences, and the terrors of HIV, will both belong to the receding past.