Queen's University — Since 1873
4th October 2011

Annual conference doubles in size

Health and Human Rights Conference addresses HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa

Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, executive director of the Stephen-Lewis Foundation, speaks about HIV/AIDS at the conference Friday.
Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, executive director of the Stephen-Lewis Foundation, speaks about HIV/AIDS at the conference Friday. (Corey Lablans)

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For the first time, Queen’s Health and Human Rights Conference offered free admittance to its delegates after $16,650 in sponsorship by Queen’s departments, Schools and organizations was provided to the conference. This marks an approximate $4,000 raise compared to last year.

The weekend-long conference was in its 11th year and drew 320 delegates. On Friday and Saturday participants attended sessions relating to maternal health and gender inequality in sub-Saharan Africa, with a particular focus on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Conference co-chair Harrison Banner said removing the attendance cost allowed more students to register.

“We’ve been very lucky with [sponsorship] and we just thought it would be much better to make the conference free, so that there was no financial barrier to anyone who was interested,” he said.

In previous years, the conference would have cost $15 to $20 to attend, covering the costs for a keynote speaker and food. Capacity was capped at 320 delegates this year, up from 150, Banner said.

“Just this past year we were awarded the Queen’s Human Rights Initiative Award which … was a big deal in terms of getting the name out there to the people of Queen’s,” he said.

The Queen’s Human Rights Initiative Award is annually awarded an initiative that made contributions to advancing equality and human rights on campus.

Banner said medical students have traditionally run the conference, but more efforts were made to recruit students from other faculties to help.

An interdisciplinary conference, Banner said, means combining multiple perspectives that touch on health, but also incorporating human rights and development.

“That’s sort of the mindset we want,” he said.

Delegates included students from the University of Ottawa, Ryerson University and McMaster University.

Ilana Landsberg-Lewis, executive director of the Stephen-Lewis Foundation, was the keynote speaker of the conference this year.

After being involved in the Foundation for eight years, she created the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign in 2006, which supports African grandmothers caring for children orphaned by AIDS.

“The dimensions of injustice, equity and inequality are so profound and so symbolic of all that’s cockeyed in this world that it’s really fundamentally distressing and unbearably enlightening all at once,” she said to the audience on Friday night.

Landsberg-Lewis’ main focus of her keynote address was vertical transmission — the transmission of the HIV virus from mother to child during pregnancy, labour, delivery and breast-feeding.

She said it’s a preventable problem but it’s not sufficiently addressed by the international community and organizations like the United Nations.

According to international HIV/AIDS charity AVERT, when a woman with HIV/AIDS breastfeeds her baby, the likelihood of transmission can increase by up to 20 per cent.

“Prevention of vertical transmission should have been easy, and instead for the past decade in Africa everything has stagnated around the lack of urgency in the response,” she said.

Landsberg-Lewis said in 2008, for every child born HIV-positive in North America and Western and Central Europe combined, there were 800 newborns infected in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s really an outrage to think that the drugs are known and available,” she said. “The value of a life, these little lives, seems to be determined by geography and, dare I say it, by race and ethnicity.”

There is a lack of understanding surrounding the way in which gender inequality is at the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, she said, adding that there is little or no focus on women as individuals.

“In the most invidious and devastating of ways, the AIDS pandemic is going to show the danger of being female in this world,” she said. “Gender inequality, discrimination and the lack of adequate accessible healthcare for women all too often conspire to end women’s lives and devastate children.”

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