Thousands of researchers, politicians and activists called for a long-term sustained response rather than a crisis management approach to end AIDS as the 16th international conference on the pandemic kicked off on Sunday.
"Your efforts will ensure that one day soon, we will put an end to one of the most insidious epidemics of our time," Canadian Governor-General Michaelle Jean told the crew when she officially opened the week-long conference at the Rogers Center in downtown Toronto Sunday evening local time.
The opening session concluded with a keynote address by Bill and Melinda Gates in which they called for an increased focus on women, for accelerated research on microbicides and for the global scale-up of HIV prevention and treatment.
Conference workshops and plenary sessions, which officially begin on Monday, are expected to deal with a wide range of issues, including scientific researches of caring for those with HIV/AIDS and of preventing the spread of the virus.
About 24,000 delegates and 3,000 journalists have come to Toronto for the now biennial meeting.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 65 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV and AIDS has killed more than 25 million people.
The conference began Sunday morning with a march through the streets that included blues singer Alicia Keys, and UN AIDS for Africa envoy Stephen Lewis, as well as 100 grandmothers from 13 African countries, who were all forced to raise their grandchildren after their children died of AIDS.
The women, who have been at the forefront of many projects to help the estimated 13 million AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, sang as they strode toward the CBC Broadcast Center and then gathered in the building's atrium to sing "We Shall Overcome."
Diagnosed with HIV at age 18, Frika Iskandar, from Indonesia, said she represented "the new face of AIDS -- a young Asian woman."
Iskandar said she was recently refused treatment by a dentist out of ignorance. "The stigma and discrimination is still there. Nothing has changed," the girl said.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was under fire for declining an invitation to open the event.
"We are dismayed that the prime minister of Canada, Mr. Stephen Harper, is not here this evening," said Conference co-chairman Dr. Mark Wainberg, a leading AIDS researcher at Canada's McGill University.
"The role of prime minister includes the responsibility to show leadership on the world stage. Your absence sends the message that you do not consider HIV/AIDS as a critical priority, and clearly all of us here disagree with you," he said.