The first International AIDS Conference in Atlanta in 1985 was organized to present an overview of knowledge about this emerging epidemic, including possible aetiology, clinical progression, modes of transmission, epidemiological trends and the new test for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), recently identified as the causative agent amid much controversy between French and American scientists. This and other early conferences were organized and funded by the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Department of Health and Human Services (in particular, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), and major research institutes, led by a small group of American and European scientists and public health officials who were grappling with how to respond to this novel disease.
The second conference was held in Paris in 1986, and continued to focus on biomedical and epidemiological research rather than the broader social, political and behavioural issues that became prominent in later years.
The opening scientific lecture was delivered by the co-discoverer of HIV, Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute. The organizers of the Paris conference demonstrated their foresight by entrusting the second lecture to Bila Kapita, Chief of Internal Medicine at the Mama Yemo Hospital in Kinshasa, Zaire. Kapita was among the first to publicly acknowledge that Africa already had a serious AIDS epidemic. It was courageous of him to talk openly about AIDS in Africa at that time; he was sentenced to jail upon returning to Kinshasa and was saved from a prison term only through diplomatic interventions. The Paris conference reflected the growing knowledge about the pathogenesis of HIV, including the ominous fact that HIV began to destroy the immune system at the onset of infection and was not dormant during the years between infection and the appearance of clinical symptoms. Other scientific news included the discovery of HIV-2, another retrovirus which was causing AIDS in Western Africa, and a closely-related retrovirus prevalent in African green monkeys.
At the 1987 conference in Washington, DC, politicizing AIDS abruptly took centre stage. Protests exploded against the lack of political leadership on the burgeoning epidemic which was claiming a growing number of lives in the US and elsewhere; by May 1987, more than 20,000 Americans had died of AIDS and more than 36,000 had been diagnosed with HIV. However, US President Ronald Reagan had yet to make a public statement about the epidemic, which was still predominantly prevalent in the gay community, injecting drug users, and a few immigrant communities. It was the first time that the conference had received widespread media coverage, with television reports around the world broadcasting pictures of police officers wearing bright yellow rubber gloves as they arrested demonstrators outside the White House. Activists also protested the sluggish drug approval process at the US Food and Drug Administration. Zidovudine (AZT) had just been approved for treatment against AIDS in the US, but the side effects of treatment with AZT were debilitating and the effects only transitory. Other experimental treatments were mired in the bureaucratic hurdles required by federal regulators.
Behavioural and sociological research began to be presented at the 1987 conference, but in retrospect, it is striking how little was known about human sexuality, drug use and other behaviour crucial to the spread of HIV. One little-noticed Pasteur Institute study from the Washington conference noted that HIV could be inactivated by disinfectants and spermicides, foreshadowing later efforts to develop microbicides.
The initial idea in the early years of the International AIDS Conferences was to alternate the site of the conference annually between France and the US. These two countries had the largest number of HIV researchers at that time, and their selection was also a tribute to the scientific contribution made by the two countries in determining the causative agent of AIDS. However, after the 1987 conference in Washington, both Montreal and San Francisco came forward offering to organize the 1988 conference. The decision was ultimately made to hold the 1988 International AIDS Conference in Stockholm, and to hold the 1989 and 1990 conferences in Montreal and San Francisco, respectively.
The competition to host the 1988 conference highlighted the need for a more orderly planning process to coordinate meetings that were growing in size, complexity and importance. The IV International AIDS Conference in Stockholm had 7,500 participants from 140 countries. Among them were representatives from all of the major agencies involved in the global response to AIDS. It was time to establish an association responsible for organizing the conferences, as well as smaller subspecialty meetings that could also serve as an international forum for information exchange. A group of prominent scientists from different regions of the world met to discuss how to proceed. The group decided to found an international society for the purpose of organizing the conferences, governed by an Advisory Board. This was the beginning of the IAS.
The IAS was initially registered as a non-profit association in Frankfurt, West Germany. The mission and objectives of the International AIDS Conferences were subsequently drafted in close collaboration with Jonathan Mann, then Director of the WHO Global Programme on AIDS. They established important principles that would guide future IAS policy: the international and interdisciplinary approach (including ethical, legal, economic and political aspects of HIV/AIDS, in addition to biomedical issues); promotion of global solidarity between people working in HIV and AIDS; and fighting discrimination against people living with HIV and AIDS and those most vulnerable to infection. More specifically, “respect for the human rights and dignity of HIV-infected people and people with AIDS and their active participation” were highlighted, as were the “promotion of research and most effective application of new knowledge to HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment”.
The logo of the Stockholm conference was the silhouette of a man, woman and child superimposed on the virus; it placed people at the centre of the epidemic, acknowledged that it affected women and children as well as men, and marked the end of a period where the conference focused primarily on biomedical aspects of HIV/AIDS. The “Face of AIDS” was introduced at this conference as a forum for people living with HIV, a revolutionary change at a time when “patients” and civil society organizations were rarely included in scientific conferences. The conference focused on HIV in developing countries, particularly in Africa. Another initiative was to invite a broader range of research disciplines to the conference to stimulate their interest in HIV research, including anthropologists, behavioural scientists and mathematical modelling experts who could help forecast global epidemiology. In addition, classical immunologists were invited to address vaccine research, which was already focusing on humoral immunity against the virus surface antigen, glycoprotein (gp) 120.
The Stockholm conference marked the start of close cooperation between the conference organizers and UN agencies, at that time primarily WHO. The 1988 conference also began the tradition of having the Director of the WHO Global Programme on AIDS, later replaced by the Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), present a global overview of the HIV pandemic to open the conference.