As caravans of activists, scientists, celebrities and medical academics descended on Washington, DC for the first International Aids Conference to be held in the US in 22 years, there was dismay among some that the man who might have been the biggest turn, Barack Obama, was not planning to attend.

A five-day ruckus of lectures, seminars and presentations opened on Sunday with the unfurling of the original Aids quilt on Washington’s National Mall and a march by thousands of protesters anxious to remind attendees of the conference and governments that the work to contain the epidemic is far from done.

Yet as the first session began, the mood was one of cautious optimism as reflected in the conference’s theme, “Turn the Tide Together”. While the search for vaccines and a cure continues, most of the emphasis here this week will be on “treatment as prevention”, which holds that the more you deliver antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive patients, the less the disease will spread.

Keeping Obama away from the conference – he will address it by video – was surely a political calculation.

It is suggested that it probably would not have done his re-election bid any good.

Levels of ignorance among American voters about the science of Aids remain high, while the stigma attached to it is still a problem, polls show.

The irony, of course, is that the conference, which happens every other year, would never have returned to the US were it not for the decision by Obama in 2009 to repeal regulations approved during the second term of Ronald Reagan that barred HIV-positive individuals from entering the US and thus attending meetings. – The Independent