EATG » IAN HODGSON – Navigating the International AIDS Conference: a guide for first timers

IAN HODGSON – Navigating the International AIDS Conference: a guide for first timers

This guide is designed for people relatively new to the AIDS conferences. It provides some guidance for navigating what still is the largest global conference addressing a single topic.


The guide has four sections:

  1. Background
  2. Prioritising what to see
  3. What not to forget
  4. Final comments


  1. Background

The first International AIDS Conference (IAC) was held in 1985 in Atlanta, US. The first meeting aimed to bring together experts to consider the growing HIV epidemic that emerged during the early 1980s. It was held annually until 1996, and then bi-annually. Since its launch, it’s had an international feel, and rotates around various countries, though it wasn’t until 2000 that it finally reached the African continent – Durban – felt by many to be too late (even during the early 1990s it was clear HIV affected Africa more than anywhere else).


The International AIDS Society organises the IAC. It was initially a ‘scientific’ event, but over time it’s has become much more community focused, and the IAS in the ’90s split off the pure scientific content into a separate event held alternate years to the IAC. This allowed the IAC to include a much larger community and advocacy component.


At each conference there are usually significant ‘announcements’ and highlights – the most famous of which was Vancouver in 1996 with presentations confirming the benefits of combination therapy, revolutionising HIV treatments from then on. Since 1996 other major highlights include: a strong focus on Africa (2000); the need to scale up HIV treatment (Bangkok, 2004, when only fraction of PLHIV needing treatment had access); a focus on TB, drug use, and treatment equivalence in eastern Europe (Vienna, 2010); human rights (a theme at most conferences, but a special focus at Durban, 2016).


Many who can’t afford registration for the actual conference simply attend the global village, which, arguably, is more beneficial for networking, gaining new insights into community initiatives, and having more fun. You should visit there anyway.


  1. Priotising what to see

The IAC is a huge beast, with 20,000+ people attending each time. With the 1000s of presentations and abstracts available, it’s easy to get disorientated and lose track of what to see (and what not to see). The theme for 2018 is ‘Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges’ – similar to many other themes (!) but likely to include a lot on HIV prevention, vaccine and cure research, and key populations (especially in EECA and north Africa).


I’ve been to seven previous conferences, and each time I’ve learnt something new, met new (and old) friends, and gone home with a stack of documents. Here are some tips that I find useful:

  1. Choose your themes – perhaps 3 or 4 – and follow them closely. The online version of the programme is a great way of selecting what you want to see (and you can set up a personal profile to print out your own agenda).
  2. The IAC has lots of types of presentations events: plenary sessions, abstract-based presentations, satellite meetings (these are often very interesting), posters, workshops, pre-conference meetings, bridging sessions etc. Remember, follow your theme and don’t be distracted unless something is really interesting.
  3. If you’re linked with an organisation, use their participation as a starting point. For example, the EATG is a hosting a meeting on Metrodora and the Ageing project.
  4. If you have a media pass then you must check out the press conferences around your theme – these are small scale and offer fine opportunities for Q&A.
  5. Take notes – if you type quickly use a laptop. If handwritten, write down key points (sorry if this is obvious – but before I typed my notes I often had difficulty reading my own writing).
  6. Finally, don’t try and go to everything. Each delegate will attend only a fraction of what’s on offer – which is why it’s important to stick to your themes.


  1. What not to forget

Amid the flurry of meetings and presentations:

  1. Make sure you eat and drink! There will be food and refreshments available onsite, though you’ll need Euros to pay for these. Attending so many sessions can be tiring, so hunt down places to relax between sessions.
  2. Use the conference as an opportunity to network and meet colleagues from other countries. Make a list of people and stick to it. Sounds obvious, but with 20,000+ people surrounding you, it’s easy to be distracted.
  3. Remember to take business cards (if you use them). Perhaps aim to meet 10 new people at the event to keep in touch with afterwards.
  4. Plan your time – getting between sessions and move among the crowds can take time (sometimes a 10-15 minute walk even in the conference centre); if an event is external it can take longer. Get a map!
  5. Onsite internet is available, so plan to keep in touch with friends and colleagues using messaging services like WhatsApp or iMessenger. It will be a pretty open network, so if you’re sensitive about online security it’s probably best not to do financial transactions online without using a VPN. More information about VPNs is here.
  6. If you are coming from a non-EU country, you can also purchase local SIM cards at the airport on arrival for onsite communications.
  7. The global village – the community hub and a great place to see what organisations are doing at the local level in gazillions of countries.
  8. Finally, Don’t Panic.


  1. Final comments

The IAC is big. It’s a sweaty, busy, occasionally draining, but always exciting event. You should come out at the end with more knowledge, new contacts, awareness of the excellent work being done in many countries on HIV treatment, care, and support, and some optimism for the future. Many can’t attend the conference, so do your best to cascade new information to colleagues.


Ian Hodgson

EATG Training and Capacity Building Working Group Chair

18 July 2018