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July 23, 2012

AIDS 2012 Opener: Collaboration is Key to an 'AIDS-Free Generation'

by Kate Ferguson

AIDS 2012 delegates call on world community to recommit to bringing an end to AIDS through shared global responsibility, solidarity and accountability and staying the course to capitalize and build on scientific research successes that have brought us to the brink of ending AIDS.

AIDS 2012Speakers at the opening ceremony of the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012), held on Sunday evening, July 22, called on the world community to capitalize and build on scientific research successes that have brought us to the brink of realizing the goal of achieving a completely “AIDS-free generation.”

In essence, according to Michel Sidibe, the executive director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, to move closer to this goal the priorities must include the following steps: scaling up treatment as prevention; putting 15 million people on treatment by 2015; eliminating new infections of children; keeping mothers alive; and closing the funding gap.

After he announced that the Republic of Korea had just hours before lifted travel restrictions on people living with HIV, Sidibe characterized the current HIV/AIDS climate as both the best and worst of times for a number of reasons.

More people are on treatment than ever before with a marked increase in people on antiretroviral therapy in African countries and China, Sidibe said, adding that 100,000 fewer babies were born with the virus and the world has experienced a decline in HIV mortality.

Sidibe also stressed that now is the best time to take AIDS out of isolation and tap into its importance as a social movement, which, he urged, should be integrated into other key health issues focused on women and their reproductive health and rights as well as children’s health.

Calling for HIV’s inclusion into family care, Sidibe cited the success of this approach in African countries such as Rwanda. In addition, Sidibe said the time is also ripe to address social determinants such as stigma, poverty, gender inequities, violence, homophobia, criminalization and homelessness—all of which put individuals at risk of contracting the virus.

But along with the great opportunities afforded to us, there are also major obstacles that must be overcome. Sidibe cited rampant HIV funding cuts and waning financial commitment from different countries currently preoccupied with their own internal hardships. These problems have shifted the focus away from the war on HIV/AIDS.

“I’m afraid for the future of global solidarity,” Sidibe said.

Sidibe and other speakers characterized the current status of HIV/AIDS science as being on the edge of victory, but also said this defining moment could be lost if financial constraints put the brakes on research just when it’s been proven that the end of AIDS is achievable. HIV orphans are still being rejected; young girls and women continue to be victims of rape and domestic violence; and young people don’t have universal access to sex education, Sidibe stressed.

What’s more, HIV is having a shocking effect on America’s black community, with stigma and discrimination also stealing lives in the United States just as it does in Africa, Sidibe added. Although many countries feel they have their own problems, “this is not the time for isolationism,” he said.

Sidibe ended by stressing that the fight to end AIDS is a shared task that isn’t free. “It is not expensive,” he said. “It is priceless.”

In general, all speakers echoed the same refrain, issuing messages of thanks to the United States for taking the global lead in addressing the HIV epidemic on a massive scale. Speakers also thanked President Obama for finishing what his predecessor, former president George W. Bush, started by striking down the HIV travel ban.

But AIDS 2012 co-chairs IAS president Elly Katabira of Uganda, and Diane Havlir, MD, a professor of medicine and chief of the HIV/AIDS Division, University of California, San Francisco, also urged the rest of the world to meet the challenge of U.S. generosity by using contributed resources more effectively to make care accessible to everyone. “Nations must justify the dollars invested in them,” said Katabira.

In addition, Havlir outlined that what we need to end AIDS includes funding increases for testing, prevention, treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and male adult circumcision. What’s more, Havlir said, there needs to be a call to action for more social justice; an end to mother-child transmission and keeping mothers healthy; plus, over a longer term, increasing efforts to conquer tuberculosis and viral hepatitis.

“Invest in science, invest in this epidemic and you will change lives,” Havlir said. “If we don’t try to end AIDS now, there will be millions of new infections and the death toll will continue to climb.”

Other speakers included Rev. Charles Straight, who opened the session with a prayer and an overview of the progress made by faith-based organizations. Straight stressed the need for worldwide unity to “turn the tide together.”

Straight’s remarks were followed by those of Washington, DC’s mayor, Vincent Gray, who said “turning the tide” applied to the AIDS epidemic both globally and stateside, in particular in hard-hit areas such as DC. He urged private sector businesses to follow the city’s lead in their efforts to end AIDS.

Other global speakers such as Annah Sango of Zimbabwe stressed the need for accountability for the continued failure to address women’s rights—in particular, marginalization from services, forced sterilization and women’s sexual reproductive health—which is crucial to ending the epidemic. “Policy decisions that affect women must include them in the decision-making process,” Sango said. “This means all women, including women who use drugs and women sex workers.”

U.S. representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) echoed Sango’s language, stressing that inclusiveness also meant putting an end to stigma, discrimination and criminalization of HIV.

World Bank president Jim Yong Kim spoke about the role poverty plays in helping to drive the HIV epidemic. Under his leadership, Kim pledged that the World Bank would dedicate itself to eradicating poverty and supporting economic and social justice through the building of health systems and the implementation of social protection programs. “To do this, we need to share knowledge and know-how,” said Kim, who cited Rwanda’s successes to meet human needs by tackling HIV as a health systems problem.

In a video address by Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, he reiterated the 2015 targets Sidibe previously mentioned that were set one year ago by the United Nations General Assembly. Ki-moon pledged his continued HIV advocacy for universal access to care, prevention, treatment and support. In addition, he promised to continue to press the drug industry for access to affordable meds and to ask that nations protect the rights of people living with HIV.

The last several speakers included ambassador Mark Dybul, South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who closed the session with a reminder of all the breakthroughs achieved in HIV science and treatment and a plea to nations to maintain the momentum to do more to achieve an AIDS-free world.

Search: hiv, aids 2012, international aids conference, straight, katabira, havlir, gray, sango, kim, sidibe, ki-moon, lee, dybus, sebelius

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