The medical meetings I cover are mostly academic exercises, with researchers reporting new data and other experts mulling the data over and trying to decide what it means. But there is another aspect to many meetings, especially the big ones with thousands or even tens of thousands of attendees, that has a decidedly theatrical element. I even know some people who insist on calling these meetings shows, although that’s mostly their exhibit-hall orientation.
No other medical meeting I’ve covered, easily more than 400 in my career, incorporates as much theater and performance as the International AIDS Conferences, which began in 1985 and have been held every other year since 1996. The AIDS Conferences are where conventional meeting science and discussion collides with demonstrations, passions, and flamboyant displays.
At the eighteenth International AIDS Conference, held this week and wrapped up today in Vienna, my vote for the most attention-grabbing and creative theatricality was the Condomize! display that maintained an expansive presence in the middle of the main traffic corridor all week. Volunteers from The Condom Project created condom mosaics on corridor columns, worked beneath billboard-sized condom murals along with a display of air-filled condoms (the better to see the variety of sizes), and had tables laden with thousands of condoms for distribution and for the creation of condom pins.
Other theatrical elements included the Haitian solidary demonstration that took over the podium and launched one morning’s plenary session.
Where else but at the AIDS Conference would you find Annie Lennox co-chairing a plenary session.
And then there was the most electrifying and anticipated report at this year’s session, last Tuesday afternoon, when researchers from Caprisa reported results from their proof-of-principle clinical study that showed a tenofovir vaginal gel used by women before and after sex cut the rate of new HIV infections by a relative 39% (see my report here). During the course of the hour-long report, the large, packed audience greeted the exciting results with four separate outbursts of applause, ending with a standing ovation at the end of the talk.
Nothing gets more theatrical than a performance received like that.
—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)