THE biennial International AIDS Conference is coming home to Durban, South Africa where the world’s largest health conference was first held 16 years ago.

It is a vitally important event held every two years for people working in the HIV/AIDS sector to come together to discuss new treatments, policy, advocacy and community response.

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The most recent conference in 2014 was hosted in Melbourne and attended by global dignitaries, celebrities, health and business leaders including Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Bob Geldof.

ACON president Justin Koonin, who was born in South Africa, still retains close ties with his country of birth and is paying his own way to get to Durban, but has committed to making sure those geographically closer to the conference will actually be able to attend.

The Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust (HACT) is located about 36 kilometres north-west of where the conference is being held in Durban, but given high registration fees, it is impossible for any of their staff to attend.

HACT has spent the past 26 years providing care for people living with HIV (PLHIV) through HIV counselling and testing, running a 24-bed respite unit/hospice, providing HIV education in schools, running prevention programmes with youth, running a successful craft shop that creates income opportunities for over 300 women and looking after orphans whose parents have died from HIV, with their heartwarming Granny Support Groups.

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The fee for South African participants to attend AIDS 2016 is $AU1092 ($US795) – a prohibitively high cost for the not-for-profit organisation.

Taking off his official hat as ACON president, Koonin has made it his personal mission to help fund two of HACT’s staff to attend AIDS 2016 and has set up a crowdfunding page to get them there.

“I was born in South Africa and my mother worked as a social worker in the townships, so I’ve been connected from a young age,” Koonin told Star Observer.

“I wrote to the CEO (of HACT), asking if I could visit them when I go to South Africa… and she said she was devastated because they couldn’t afford to go to conference.

“They are colleagues of mine. It’s important for them to be there… it shouldn’t be that I can go because I can afford to.”

Koonin describes HACT as being at the epicentre of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which wiped out an entire generation of people and leaving thousands of children without parents.

The region has one of the highest incidences of HIV in the world. 36 per cent of women living in KwaZulu Natal aged 28-34 years are HIV positive, there are 500,000 new HIV infections annually in South Africa, and there are 2.5 million AIDS orphans in the country.

“They are people working in very different conditions that we wouldn’t see in developed countries,” he said.

“The opportunities we have in Australia are greater than other parts of the world.”

Koonin said any extra funds he raised beyond paying for staff to attend AIDS 2016, would go directly to HACT to help fund their important services.

“These are amazing people on the frontline doing incredible work in some of the most difficult circumstances on the planet and it’s a crying shame that they won’t be able to attend this important conference in their backyard,” Koonin said on his fundraising page.

To donate to Koonin’s fundraiser, please click here.

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