Did You Make It To This Year’s International AIDS Conference?

Did You Make It To This Year’s International AIDS Conference?

Durban, a popular ocean city on the Eastern coast of South Africa, played host to more than 6,000 local and foreign guests at the 21st International AIDS Conference last week (18/7/16 - 22/7/16).

Filled with watershed moments, the Conference brought together dignitaries, activists and politicians, including South Africa’s Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Canada’s Health Minister Jane Philpott, South Africa’s Salim Karim (Center for AIDS Program of Research in SA), Bill Gates, Actress Charlize Theron, Sir Elton John, and Prince Harry. Amongst all the dignitaries, however, were the true heroes and heroines – the individuals who work in townships and cities around the world in order to halt HIV transmission and reduce the stigma etched into the HIV-infected members of our societies. As someone who attended the Conference, I was fortunate to meet some of these champions including Loyce Maturu (representing Africaid Zvandiri in Zimbabwe), Carlo Rodriguez (representing Adolescent HIV Treatment Coalition in Puerto Rico) and Aaron Siegler (representing Emory University in the USA).  

Individuals from all walks of life gathered in order to celebrate the milestones covered since the last AIDS conference was held in Durban - in 2000. How wonderful that such an event could mark the coming-together of many great minds amongst the fear and terror rife in our societies this July. Sixteen years ago, in 2000, the world was very different than today’s international attacks, political warfare, and weekly funerals.

In 2000, at the 17th International AIDS Conference, President Nelson Mandela invited 11-year old Nkosi Johnson onto the stage. Johnson, a child living with HIV and full-blown AIDS, shared his experience with the world in a speech that changed the life of every person in the audience. Johnson brought to the fore the fact that most of the world was in denial about HIV/AIDS, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable rise of the epidemic. Johnson’s touching words highlighted the stigma attached to HIV – something that many speakers emphasized in this year’s conference, 16 years later. Had Johnson been alive today, he would have continued his fight as a 27-year-old HIV activist.

So what was the outcome of Durban’s last Conference? Millennium Development Goals were soon adopted at an international summit, and the cost of HIV treatment was US $10,000 per person per annum. There was low commitment to treatment with few (wealthy) South Africans on antiretroviral treatment (ART). In 2008, the change began with a Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health on many African countries – the nations most at risk for HIV/AIDS. Research and funding increased as a way for individuals around the world to learn more about the epidemic.  The US launched PEPFAR: the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The Global Fund became integral in public health discussions and debates around the world. With increased funding came increased advocacy – there was a rise of solidarity amongst developing nations. Global citizens began demanding access to treatment in civil society, academic, government and private sectors. There seemed to be a common call to action – the call to end HIV/AIDS.

By the end of 2015, 3.4 million people were on ART. From 2009 to 2014, there was improved life expectancy from 58 years to 62 years. In South Africa, specifically, AIDS deaths declined from 410,000 in 2008 to 180,000 in 2014. Furthermore, Mother-to-Child Transmission (MTCT) was reduced from 8% in 2008 to 1.5% in 2015. As for the financial sector, savings attributed to ART medications totaled 53% compared to previous years. Now, in 2016, HIV treatment costs US $0.20 per person per day.

Despite the long way we have come, however, countless speakers at the Conference were quick to focus on the longer road ahead. Currently, there are 37 million people globally who are HIV positive and require HIV treatment. A mere 17 million of these individuals have access to treatment. Additionally, there are 3.3 million children living with HIV – only 32% of whom will receive ART. There is a marked need for innovation and access to treatment - both of requiring funding and social cohesion. To create awareness around these two goals, the slogans “Fund the Global Fund” and “Zero Stigma – Zero Discrimination” were commonplace during the Conference.

As a student attending the conference, I was overwhelmed by the energy and passion exhibited on and off the stage. Whether I engaged with health ministers or community health workers, I found an equal commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS – because “no” is no longer an option.  

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*All figures and facts are referenced from statements made at the 21st International AIDS Conference – please see WHO and IAS websites for more information.

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