More than 8,800 participants are from the United States; countries that have been hit hard by the epidemic, such as South Africa and Nigeria, are also sending large numbers. There have been 160 visa denials, according to conference organizers.
Worldwide, 34 million people are HIV-positive, and around 30 million have died of AIDS. In the United States, more than 600,000 have died of AIDS and around 1.1 million are infected, with around 50,000 new infections every year.
Unlike most conferences in Washington, this one will spill into the surrounding area.
Along with panel discussions on the latest developments in AIDS research and policy, the convention center will host a Global Village that is free and open to the public. The 190,000-square-foot area will feature debates and panel discussions as well as art exhibits and theater and musical performances.
“It will serve as the conference’s centerpiece for community and civil society,” said Global Village coordinator Joe Elias.
Affiliated events are being planned across the city, including a benefit production of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s play about AIDS, at the Arena Stage on Monday and a display of parts of the 48,000-square-foot AIDS quilt on the Mall.
Local businesses and organizations are hosting non-affiliated events, including several marches. A Keep the Promise 2012 march, sponsored by the international nonprofit group AIDS Healthcare Foundation, will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Washington Monument and will include speakers such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, Cornell West, Tavis Smiley, Wyclef Jean and Margaret Cho.
The march will be more of a rally than a protest, said Jason McCall, one of its organizers, adding that it will focus on shortcomings in AIDS policy such as “the lack of access to HIV testing, treatment and prevention, wavering political commitment to funding the global AIDS response, and excessive AIDS drug pricing by pharmaceutical companies.”
While there are likely to be people protesting at the marches and at the conference itself, the nature and scale of the protests have changed since the last time the conference was held in the United States, said Bill Arnold, chief executives of Community Access National Network, a national AIDS nonprofit group.
“There was more at stake,” said Arnold, who has been an AIDS activist since 1985. “People were out there who were going to die, and they didn’t like that.” With drugs available to manage the disease, “the fire in the belly piece is less alive in today’s people living with AIDS than it would have been 15 years ago or 20 years ago,” he said.
But, he added, “it’s 30 years on and we’re still behind the curve, both domestically and internationally, and I expect that some sessions may get interrupted by some groups who feel very strongly about that.”
Protests have already begun: Police said nine people were arrested Wednesday near the Capitol. Demonstrators had chained themselves to 50-foot tripods and hoisted themselves in the air to bring attention to the fight against AIDS, said activist Lucile Scott.
A “Psychedelic Hookers Ball” at Ziegfeld’s Secrets, one of a handful of places in the country where men may legally dance nude, is meant to draw attention to the situation of sex workers and intravenous drug users — two populations that have a high incidence of HIV transmission and who still face restrictions on entering the United States.
Some at the conference will be carrying red umbrellas, an international sex workers’ symbol.
Mariko Passion, a singer and sex worker in her 30s from Los Angeles, has solicited online donations from other sex workers so she can attend the conference and perform at the Global Village, but has fallen far short of her $2,500 goal. “I’m looking to decriminalize prostitution at the policy level,” she said, adding that if she makes it to the conference she will subsidize her trip by taking clients in the Washington area for $250 to $300 an hour. She said she is not HIV-positive.
For Appolinaire Tiam, technical director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Lesotho, a country with one of the world’s highest rates of HIV infection, the choice of the nation’s capital as host city for the event was significant.
“The U.S. has invested a lot into HIV,” said Tiam, who arrived two weeks ago from Lesotho. “It’s good to have this conference in the back yard here, so the American people can see and touch and feel what we are actually talking about.”