Sunday, 17 January 2021

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Despite successes in Africa, HIV/AIDS on the rise in the EECA and North African Middle Eastern regions

Youth at stand at AIDS 2018 Conference

Last week, 23-27 July, more than 16,000 researchers, advocates, policy makers, funders and community leaders from over 160 countries came together in Amsterdam to attend the 22nd International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2018). The annual conference, organised by the International AIDS Society, with UNAIDS as a permanent international partner, is the largest conference on any global health issue in the world. Among the UN entities present, UNDP, UNICEF and WHO sponsored the event. 

The theme of AIDS 2018 ‘Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges’ drew attention to the need of rights-based approaches to more effectively reach key populations. This is especially important in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA region) and the North-African/Middle Eastern regions where the epidemic is growing. In the EECA region the annual number of new HIV infections has doubled in recent years. As Mr. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, highlighted during the opening ceremony: “In 2018 it is unacceptable that in 49 countries new HIV infections are increasing”.

People with HIV/AIDS today still face stigma and discrimination. Both are major drivers of the epidemic, with HIV criminalization a growing concern in the EECA region, as well as in other parts of the world. This year’s theme underlined the need to tackle these issues.

During the conference many addressed the need for better prevention and more funding. Dozens of sessions dealt with the issue of prevention by looking not only at basic and clinical research, but also at studies with real-world implications and practice. With an estimated 1.8 million new HIV infections in 2017, there was widespread agreement at AIDS 2018 that the current pace of scale up for proven prevention initiatives is far too slow to reach future targets and must be increased rapidly to make lasting gains against the epidemic. Among others, Mr. Sidibé stressed the importance of international funding by explaining that: “There is a persistent 20% gap between what is needed and what is available, small cuts have big consequences for many people”.

Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director at AIDS 2018 Conference

AIDS 2018 put the spotlight on the need to address the comprehensive health and well-being needs of people affected by HIV. “We have not truly helped a child if we treat her for HIV, but do not vaccinate her against measles”, said WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus at the conference's opening session. He also reminded participants of  WHO’s aim to achieve universal health coverage, an essential step in beating HIV/AIDS. “Every year almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty by having to pay for care out of their own pockets, this outrage must end”, as stated by Mr. Ghebreyesus.

The organisers of AIDS 2018 sought to engage more young people in the conference. Several youth-focused programmes and events put young people and their experiences front and centre. During the closing ceremony Ms. Linda-Gail Bekker, from the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation and Co-Chair of AIDS 2018, expressed her gratitude to all the young people who joined the conference, as they are the ones that have most at stake. “It is thanks to your engagement, dedication, and passion, that there is a future, […], you are the ones that must carry this movement forward”. 

It is clear that the battle against HIV/AIDS is far from over and that the world still faces many challenges in the process of meeting the targets of the Agenda 2030. During the closing ceremony Co-Chair of AIDS 2018 Peter Reiss from the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, concluded: “We have heard that we are lagging behind in reducing new infections and that we need to step up the pace if we are to meet the 2030 targets. But at the same time we have also heard that it can in fact be done”. Even though the figures are worrying, solutions are at hand. Mr. Reiss went on to say: “Shining examples were presented from countries like Botswana, Eswatini, Uganda and Kenya. This can be achieved when civil society, healthcare providers, governments and funders come together and, based on good data, design programmes that actually work”.


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