World Healthcare
Colombo AIDS event reveals a 'safe pearl in ocean'
Aug 21, 2007 - 1:47:09 PM

Colombo, Aug 21 - Every morning, A.H. Sheriffdeen, one of the chief organisers of a large regional AIDS meeting being held in the capital of war-ravaged Sri Lanka, says a little prayer.

'My first prayer of the day is that things shouldn't flare up,' said Sheriffdeen, co-chair of the International Conference on AIDS in the Asia Pacific.

His prayer is not a bit out of place, nor a day too late. Having beaten off competition from China, India and Indonesia to host this prestigious international event, Sheriffdeen cannot afford to take any chances in a nation where a 25-year civil war between government forces and armed Tamil rebels has left some 60,000 people dead, according to government estimates.

The conference - known by its acronym ICAAP - is a major event in the calendar of the health community in the Asia-Pacific, particularly those dealing with HIV/AIDS, an epidemic that afflicts 5.4 million people in the region and continues unabated.

Holding a successful international event in the midst of raging civil conflict is key to Sri Lanka's efforts to convince the international community - from sceptical Western governments to wealthy but worried tourists - that this island-nation, known as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, is a safe place.

'Or at least it is no more unsafe than any other country,' Sheriffdeen told IANS Tuesday. 'None of the Asian countries is free of conflict. Even Europe has its problems.'

Some 2,500 delegates and media representatives from 70 countries have turned up for the Aug 19-23 event, which is aimed at halting the progress of the epidemic in a crowded region that is home to the majority of the world's population - China and India alone accounting for more than 2.2 billion people.

For Sri Lankans, it even means more: it is billed as the biggest international event held in this country for decades.

Among the international delegates here are medical scientists, non-government and UN representatives, government policymakers, doctors and academics - as well as people living with HIV or AIDS - who have been sharing their experiences, learning the latest science and lobbying with government officials.

They have packed hotels, restaurants, shops and streets, bringing a fresh air of normalcy to a city that remains under a tight security net at all hours of the day.

Their bustling presence is cause for more than a little satisfaction in Colombo. As Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva told delegates Sunday, 'I appreciate your courage to break past undue fears, created by some elements through a misinformation campaign to impose a travel embargo on Sri Lanka.'

With his government bristling at travel advisories that put Sri Lanka in a no-go zone for Western tourists, de Silva declared the conference 'will reveal the truth to the global community.'

The security of delegates - and of the conference itself - is uppermost in the minds of organisers. And arrangements for the 200 media attending the opening ceremony was so thorough, some journalists complained it bordered on the paranoid.

Journalists, photographers and cameramen were taken to the ministry of media, where security personnel gave them a professional but uncompromising body and laptop search. Neither delegates nor the media was allowed to take mobile telephones to the opening.

'Anything could happen any time,' organiser Sheriffdeen said. 'But the rebels are very sensible people. They don't attack aid workers, and they won't do anything to harm the international community.'

'In fact, I specifically told security to ease restrictions.'

Bravely, Sri Lanka decided to bid for the conference in 2004, soon after being hit by the tsunami that devastated many countries of the Asia-Pacific region. The metaphor-laden theme of the conference is 'Waves of Change, Waves of Hope'.

There are already some glimmers of hope for Sri Lanka - after years of decline, tourist arrivals picked up in August, said Hiran Cooray, president of the Tourist Hotels Association.

And lined up after the AIDS conference for this year are a series of international events, such as a tea convention, a counter-terrorism conference and an England cricket tour.

At this meet, Sri Lankans have rolled up their sleeves to make a success of the event: full-time journalists, for instance, have taken time off to work as volunteers to run the busy media centre. 'An international group asked for as much as half a million dollars to run the media centre - and we are doing it for free,' said one such senior journalist.

'You know, at the end of the day, all the skills are here,' said one.

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