In the beautiful city of Vienna, Austria between 23-28 July 2010 AIDS activists, researchers, decision makers, scientists, policy makers, grassroots workers and people living with HIV gathered for a structured dialogue regarding the major issues on the global response to HIV/AIDS – a disease that has killed more than 25 million people. The theme of the conference which was the 18th since the outbreak of AIDS epidemic in the early 80s was “Rights Here, Rights Now”.
What happened in Vienna 2010 (AIDS 2010)
The AIDS 2010 conference theme emphasizes the central importance of protecting and promoting human rights as a prerequisite to a successful response to HIV. The right to dignity and self-determination for key affected populations, to equal access to health care and life-saving prevention and treatment programmes, and the right to evidence-based interventions based on evidence rather than ideology are all incorporated in this urgent demand for action.
Rights Here, Rights Now emphasizes that concrete human rights measures need to be in place to protect those most vulnerable to and affected by HIV, especially women and girls, people who use drugs, migrants, prisoners, sex workers, men who have sex with men and transgender persons.
The Conference which was convened by the International AIDS Society – a leading International Independent Association of HIV professional was aimed to keep HIV/AIDS on the front burner and a chance to demonstrate the importance of continued HIV investment to broader health and development goals. It provided opportunity for stakeholders to share knowledge, best practices and strategies in the effort to fight AIDS as well as take stock of where the epidemic is, evaluate recent scientific developments and lessons learnt and collectively chart a course forward.
The selection of Vienna as the host city according to analysts was a reflection of the Central role Vienna has played in bridging Eastern and Western Europe as well as its proximity to Eastern Europe and Central Asia, both regions with a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic fuelled primarily by injecting drug use. It also underscores this critical moment in time – with the 2010 deadline that world leaders set for providing universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support on the immediate horizon. Rights Here, Right Now is a call for leadership, accountability and action according to the conveners of the conference.
The Vienna 2010 conference as we all witnessed brought to the fore issues boarding on funding, lack of dedication to human rights, achievement of increased universal access to treatment, insufficient access to information on HIV, persecution of high risk groups, homophobia, unsafe blood transfusion, harm reduction, injecting drugs use and needle exchange, criminalization and penalization of drug use.
There were 248 sessions, 19 plenary speeches, 18 special sessions, 279 Global village activities, 151 exhibits, 127 satellite meetings, 10 scientific prizes and awards, 19,300 participants including 845 participants from Austria, 1,218 participants from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, 848 scholarship recipients, 1,276 media delegates and 197 countries represented. Out of 10,831 abstracts submitted 6,238 were accepted. Among the accepted abstracts were 13 from Society for Family Health, Nigeria and 41 from Population Services International and its affiliates.
· The Protest
The conference also witnessed series of protests about lack of funding and indifference from governmental leaders. Hundreds of activists opened the conference with a protest against AIDS funding cuts, demanding accountability from donor governments that have broken their AIDS funding promises. Delegates marched through the conference venue from the Global Village to the Opening Ceremonies location shouting ‘Broken Promises Kill’, and ‘You Made a Promise, Now Make It Happen’. Outside the entrance to the Opening Ceremonies, activists participated in the ‘die in’ under giant balloons picturing the faces of Obama, the President of Austria, G8 leaders, and key African leaders all captioned with ‘Show us the money!’. Activists dropped a banner from the subway stop outside the plenary hall, and the action concluded with activists depositing a giant ‘NO RETREAT. FUND AIDS.’ banner on the Opening Ceremonies stage.
AIDS 2010 apart from the protests also had in attendance notable global figures that presented revealing, mind blowing and boggling speeches. All speakers echoed the concerns raised by the demonstrators that donor funding for HIV/AIDS must be assured. Paula Akugizibwe from ARASA stated that lack of money was not at the heart of the donor retreat from HIV/AIDS funding:
“The global economic crisis is not threatening the fight against AIDS. It’s a global priorities crisis that’s threatening the fight against AIDS,” she saidAmong the high-profile participants at the Conference were Annie Lennox, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, President of Austria Heinz Fischer, Crown Princess of Norway HRH Mette-Marit, H.E Mr. Kgalema Motlanthe, Deputy President of South Africa, Julio Montaner President of the International AIDS Society, Mr. Bright Ekweremadu Managing Director Society For Family Health, Nigeria and Michel Sidibe UNAIDS Executive Director.
Comments from High Profile Participants
* Mette Marit – The Crown Princess of Norway
Mette Marit Crown princess of Norway who also doubled as UNAIDS Good will ambassador in her speech during the conference advocated for a “new generation leadership”, including young people in the fight against the disease.
“It is important that young people lead the fight because 40 percent of the primary HIV infection occurs in people between 15 and 24-years-old. It is important that young officers get the space they need to lead the fight against AIDS,”she said.
According to the Crown Princess, one of the current issues regarding gathering interest in HIV prevention is to reach the audience.
“The biggest challenge in AIDS work today is that there is so much competition for attention. There are many other important issues in the world. It is also important now to get enough people treated, and a vital tool to prevent primary HIV infection,”she said.
* Bill Gate
The Microsoft Founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gate told the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna that the world lacks the means to treat its way out of HIV. He believed that pushing for a new focus of efficiency in both treatment and prevention as well as innovating new tools can help see the end of AIDS.
“We should be launching concerted drives to increase the provision of treatment to prevent mother to child transmission and to roll out male circumcision programmes, he said.
In PMTCT, Bill suggested going to countries involved and getting their political leaders to set tough goals. He stated further that politicians should be pressurized to provide for prevention programmes targeting the communities where they would make the biggest difference. According to him, the problem is not lack of data. The problem is that countries are not using the data to make funding decisions. Instead politicians are making decisions based on fear and stigma”. He maintained that correctly targeted interventions including behavioural interventions that are properly focused and researched might cut the global epidemic in half.
“if we scale up existing interventions and add new tools in the hardest-hit countries, it would change the face of AIDS. New cases would plunge. Millions more could be treated. The control of HIV would stand alongside the eradication of smallpox as one of the great public health victories in history”. If we do that, we will have matched our compassion with the growing capacities of science and we will start to write the story of the end of AIDS, he concludes.
* Bill Clinton
At the other hand, former president Bill Clinton called for more efficient use of funding in the fight against AIDS to ensure that people who need it actually get it. He said that in many countries, money for AIDS is misspent and that funding should go directly to local organizations and national plans in developing countries that can deliver services well at a lower cost and less overhead than established organizations. Clinton also called on aid groups to keep in mind that the world was “awash in trouble” and hurting under the impact of the financial crisis.
“It is easy to rail at a government and say why doesn’t the government give us more money if they’re giving somebody else money,” he said. “But the government gets its money in most of these countries from taxpayers who have lower incomes today than they did two years ago.” In order to have the “moral standing” to ask for more funding, organizations should make governments believe that “we’re doing our job faster, better and cheaper”, Said Clinton.
* Dr. Julio Montaner
Dr. Julio Montaner – the president of the International AIDS Society and Chairman of the AIDS 2010 Conference during the event that had 19, 300 participants from 197 countries in attendance said that the G – 8 group of rich nations has failed to deliver on a commitment to guarantee universal access and warned that this could have dire consequences. Montaner accused governments from some Eastern European states of indifference to the acute situations in their countries and said their absence at the Vienna meeting was “irresponsible to the point of criminal negligence.”
According to the World Health Organization, 33.4 million people were living with HIV in 2008. While the numbers of deaths declined to 2 million in 2008 from 2.2 million in 2004, about 2.7 million new infections still occur each year.
* Lessons Learnt/Findings
It was revealed at the conference that the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria – the world’s largest mechanism for dispersing AIDS funds is due for replenishment by this year and will be needing US$20 billion by October 2010 to fund the next three years. Japan according to report presented at 2010 AIDS conference tops the list of donors to Global Fund among Asia donors with over US$840 million contributed since 2001.
China ranks second with US$12 million followed by South Korea providing US$7.5 million over the same period. Thailand is one of three main Southeast Asian donors providing US$6 million to the fund then Singapore with US$1 million – paid between 2004 and 2007 and Brunei Darussalam whose total contribution amounted to US$50,000 paid in 2007.
The International Drug Policy Consortium and Transform Drug Policy Foundation – in association with the Open Society of billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros presented evidence in Vienna that the global “war on drugs” is failing. According to harm reduction advocates billions of dollars spent on “crackdown” tactics were wasted due to poor performance at reducing the prevalence of drug use. Furthermore, such tactics are reported to create a difficult environment for effective prevention and treatment of HIV, especially for injecting drug users. The call for a complete overhaul of drug policies has so far received the support from over 13,000 signatories, including former presidents of Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, however the Canadian government, and other countries, have snubbed the declaration.
It was also revealed that condoms still remain the most effective means of HIV prevention. Modest but significant progress has been made in the field of biomedical approaches, researchers highlighted at the conference. They went further to state that microbicide gels designed for anal sex are being investigated but full-scale production of same-sex-oriented products would take at least another 10 years to become commercially viable if trial is successful. There are fears that the product once in the market will have a widespread impact with accessibility issues as they will only be accessible to those who can afford to pay the likely purchasing high cost.
For those that suffer the highest HIV infection rates – namely sex workers, injecting drug-users, gay men and other MSM – lack of awareness and education about one’s own risk – as well creating safe environments for everyone to access proper care, support and treatment – are still gravest of concerns, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Punitive laws according to UNDP report have adverse effect on access to HIV prevention and treatment. Nine of 48 countries in the Asia Pacific region according to the report continue to criminalize male-to-male sex creating a difficult environment for an HIV response to be effective. AIDS activists and researchers at the conference pointed out the need for intervention to target these groups.
HIV prevalence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia is on the rise with severe and growing epidemic in the Ukraine and the Russian Federation researcher stated. Reaching many of people at higher risk of HIV in the region (Eastern Europe and Central Asia) remain a challenge. An estimated 3.7 million people inject drugs and roughly one in four are thought to be HIV-positive. Evidence suggests that injecting drug users in the region are often the least likely to receive antiretroviral therapy.
* Closing Session
The conference came to a close on Friday July 23, 2010 in Vienna after setting the tone for the next chapter in the fight against the virus that causes AIDS. The Closing Session featured a video address by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, remarks by Rachel Ong, Chair of the Global Network of People Living with HIV, and Patricia Perez, Chair of the International Steering Committee of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS. Montaner and Incoming IAS President Elly Katabira, Professor of Medicine at Makerere University in Uganda, presented the first IAS Presidential Award to Jack Whitescarver of the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Katabira gave an inaugural address.
By Bako, John Chukwudi
Society for Family Health, Nigeria
(First Published August 2010)