- As the last global scientific summit
meeting on AIDS drew to a close in Geneva last month, Mr. and Ms. Condom
posed for yet another photo with yet another clutch of delegates.
- The Condom Couple were two individuals,
costumed as 7-foot-tall condoms. All week they waddled through Geneva's
vast Palexpo convention center, site of the 12th World AIDS Conference.
- Like cartoon characters at an amusement
park, they engaged in buffoonery with people, while promoting a brand of
condom for prevention of HIV/AIDS. The company cut a deal with conference
organizers and became the "official" conference condom.
- Each of the 13,000 participants found
a packet of three condoms among the registration materials in a fancy tote
bag/backpack provided by another drug company.
- Mr. and Ms. Condom were part of an often-unseen
side of international AIDS conferences, and of the disease itself; the
commercial face of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and its consequence,
acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
- Dozens of companies engaged in the development
and sale of products for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of AIDS
poured money into the AIDS conference. Government agencies, private foundations,
and other organizations also fattened the purse.
- Organizers insisted that it was impossible
to calculate the conference's total cost because of the diverse nature
of the funding. The total bankroll, however, must have been enormous.
- One sponsor, for instance, supplied free
bottled water, and estimated that each registrant consumed eight bottles.
The brand sold for about $1.50 per bottle in Geneva stores.
- Others funded an evening reception where
thousands of conference registrants enjoyed free wine and hors d'oeuvres.
- Drug companies involved in HIV/AIDS products
had elaborate booths promoting their goods in a vast exhibition area of
the convention center. Free goodies were the favorite gimmick for getting
- One dispensed an estimated 15,000 cups
of free espresso; another 25,000 cups of free coffee; and another 17,000
portions of free ice cream. At other booths delegates helped themselves
to freebies like male and female condoms, rubber devices for safer sex
sex, tote bags, apples, candy, pens.
- The big pharmaceutical companies' influence
ran deeper. Several sponsored separate "satellite" symposia that
were not part of the mainstream conference program.
- Some morning symposia included a full
catered breakfast (free, of course) for hundreds of people. Equivalent
price in a restaurant, perhaps $12. Others provided buffets of croissants,
pastries, fruit, coffee, and juices. Evening sessions often included snacks
- Big-name scientific speakers on the agenda
sometimes reported first at the industry events, hours or days before presenting
the same findings at the main conference sessions.
- Mr. and Ms. Condom and their commercial
friends illustrated the great difficulties ahead in achieving the conference's
goal: Bridging the gap in AIDS care between rich and poor countries.
- Drug regimens costing $10,000 per patient
per year are controlling AIDS in developed countries. But they are beyond
reach of people in the developing world, who account for 90 percent of
the 30 million HIV-positive people.
- Money spent on the AIDS conference's
freebies and commercialism could have had a real impact in countries hardest
hit by HIV/AIDS. In the very poorest, governments spend only a few dollars
per person per year on health care, according to United Nations AIDS Program
data. That's roughly the cost of a few packets of condoms, cups of espresso,
or bottles of water given to that largely well-to-do AIDS conference delegates.
- As long as attitudes tolerant of such
waste persist, there will be no bridging of the gap.