The upcoming XVI International AIDS Conference and an associated summit about HIV and gay men present one of the best opportunities yet to improve community responses to the epidemic, according to Australian AIDS groups.

For the first time, the biennial International AIDS Conference, which begins on Sunday and is expected to attract 20,000 participants, will feature a stream devoted to HIV among homosexual men.

In the lead-up to the conference, Toronto will also host the second satellite conference focused exclusively on HIV and men who have sex with men, beginning today, Canadian time. A similar event took place at the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok in 2004.

Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations executive director Don Baxter said the lead-in conference was a rare opportunity for local AIDS groups to work with overseas counterparts.

They are really the only place where people from comparable cities and communities with Australia actually get together to discuss [the HIV/AIDS response], Baxter told Sydney Star Observer .

Baxter said the lead-in event, whose participants include UNAIDS chief Peter Piot, would also focus on gay communities in the developing world and hostile political climates.

There are about 26 Asian guys going, but there’s also a significant participation from African and Middle Eastern gay men. That’ll be a really good impact.

Among Australian organisations presenting at the main AIDS conference are ACON, with planned sessions including a discussion of recreational drug use and sexual risk-taking among gay men, and the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research.

ACON’s acting director of community health, Brad Gray, said the conferences were a major opportunity for the community.

Gay men’s stuff hasn’t traditionally got much of a look-in in these conferences because we make up such a small percentage of people with HIV on a world scale, Gray told the Star .

HIV/AIDS in the developing world -“ a key theme at the 2004 Bangkok conference -“ will again be in the spotlight in Toronto, under the event’s theme Time to Deliver.

For more information visit the lead-in conference and XVI International AIDS Conference websites.

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