With a new United Nations report showing exponential progress in the struggle against HIV/AIDS over the past 30 years, next week’s high-level meeting on the response to the epidemic would be an opportunity to end much of the harm it caused, Deputy-Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro said at Headquarters today.
“It is a chance to chart a bold, new path,” said Ms. Migiro as she participated in a press conference to launch the report of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) titled AIDS at 30: Nations at the Crossroads. Accompanying her were Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, and Christina Rodriguez, Co-Founder of Smart Youth. According to the report, the number of people undergoing antiretroviral therapy had risen nearly 22-fold, to 6.6 million, from 2001 to the end of 2010.
“Our target is clear: zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths,” the Deputy Secretary-General said, citing the “triple-zero” goals to which, it was hoped, Heads of State and Government would commit themselves at the General Assembly session scheduled for 8 to 10 June. The Assembly was expected to take stock of the main breakthroughs made and progress achieved in prevention, treatment and support over the past 30 years, in addition to planning the road ahead.
One of the most important advances of the past decade was that young people were taking ownership of prevention efforts, Ms. Migiro said, adding that such progress was due to a broad range of partners, above all, people living with HIV and those most at risk. The ambition of international efforts had increased greatly over the past decades, with the very first targets having been drawn up just 30 years ago and universal access to prevention, care and support having only been envisioned a mere five years ago.
“We have come a long way,” said Mr. Sidibé, recalling a time when an AIDS diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence. The rate of new infections had fallen by more than 50 per cent in India alone and by more than 25 per cent in South Africa, he noted. New infections in children had dropped by more than 25 per cent in the last 10 years.
He went on to emphasize that new preventive technology and strategies presented a great opportunity if action was taken towards treatment without reservation and eliminating new infections in children by 2015. In those areas, it was crucial to end the North-South gap, given that new infections in children had been virtually eliminated in industrialized countries. He also stressed the importance of openly discussing such factors as intergenerational sex and violence against women.
All countries must contribute their fair share of resources and technology transfer, he said, adding that national ownership of programmes must be assured. HIV/AIDS must be attacked conjointly with other health challenges, such as reducing maternal and infant mortality, and fighting tuberculosis and other endemic diseases, he said, emphasizing that it was crucial that young people continue to take ownership of programmes relevant to them.
Ms. Rodriguez stressed that in order for that to happen, “we need comprehensive sex education”, noting that, at 20 years of age, she had never known a world without HIV/AIDS. A good deal of sex education still failed to provide young people with all the tools they needed to make their own best choices and counsel their peers to do likewise. Abstinence-only education, in particular, did not meet those needs, she emphasized. What young people needed in order to take ownership of the issue was in-depth knowledge of options and skills for prevention, awareness of reproductive and other rights, and a climate in which the relevant issues were discussed in an open and transparent manner.
In response to questions, Mr. Sidibé emphasized that the main “game changer” to have occurred recently was the recent study showing that early antiretroviral treatment — and strict adherence to the regimen — reduced by 96 per cent the risk of transmitting HIV to an uninfected sexual partner. Awareness of that study could help lessen fears of testing and reduce the grave problem of people not knowing they had the virus, he said, pointing out that an estimated 18 per cent of HIV-infected people worldwide were unaware of their condition.
Just as importantly, he said, the study removed the distinction between treatment and prevention. It was now important to push for “treatment for prevention”, he stressed, cautioning that such action would not be enough unless the necessary skills were built into young people. However, prevention efforts could not wait for all infected persons to be on treatment “so we need a combination”, he said. The biggest breakthrough of the past 10 years had been breaking the “conspiracy of silence” around AIDS and forging a social compact between the global North and South, which had managed to mobilize almost $16 million, he said. For the next period, a new partnership was needed to ensure that progress in the South was the same as that in the North, thereby demonstrating that life was equally valuable anywhere in the world.
Ms. Migiro added that achieving “triple-zero” could be the next breakthrough, noting that the road map to realizing that goal had started with the aim of eliminating mother-to-child infection, reducing deaths from tuberculosis, and using the most effective treatment strategies. Asked whether reduced funding for international networks of activists was having a major impact, Ms. Rodriguez said that in her experience, young people living with HIV were still very active. All three speakers agreed on the need to reverse the decline of funding in some areas. Filling the $6 billion gap in funding needed for global HIV/AIDS efforts would be “a real signal that there was not only political will, but also a will to commit resources”, Ms. Migiro said.