International AIDS Conference in the US- Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going
The 19th International AIDS Conference takes place in Washington DC this year from July 22–27th. The theme, “Turning the Tide Together”, not only reflects the enormous progress the scientific, research, private and development communities have made in diminishing the impact of this epidemic, but it also echoes the hope of finding an actual cure or preventative vaccine.
We have come a long way in the United States since the dark days when testing positive was a horrible death sentence. Today, with proper diagnosis and treatment, people with HIV in the US are living positively for decades. AIDS is now considered a “chronic disease” which has raised some concerns in the US and many developing countries as there is a slight trend towards lapse in safe sex practices, impacting infection rates.
In Africa the battle still rages on. According to the January 2012 UNAIDS report –Aids Dependency Crisis, Sourcing African Solutions, “sub-Saharan Africa remains the most heavily affected region in the world. The continent is home to two out of three people living with HIV but only 10% of the world’s population. AIDS has claimed at least one million African lives every year since 1998. And today, only half of Africans living with HIV who are eligible for treatment, are able to access it.”
Above all, let’s remember that these statistics start with a person whose life has been affected beyond comprehension and who needs our compassion and support. While these numbers seem particularly bleak, there has been considerable progress in stopping new infections and preventing deaths over the last 10 years. In fact, the report cites that “in 22 African countries the number of annual new HIV infections declined by more than 25% between 2001 and 2009. In 2010, more than five million people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral therapy – up from just 50,000 in 2002.”
This increase in access to treatment is heartening. I have seen its positive impact in my many visits to AMREF HIV program sites in Africa. But there is a whole bevy of prevention and educational resources needed to bolster our progress in reducing new infections. Health education for young people, particularly girls, can combat the stigma HIV/AIDS carries, increase testing rates, and encourage safe sex behaviors, such as condom use.
For many Tanzanians for instance, HIV/AIDS testing remains stigmatized, with less than 10% of the late teen and adult population aware of their HIV status. Young women and girls are especially vulnerable to infection as it is difficult for them to negotiate safe sex or fend off the unwanted advances of older men. Other cultural norms also create obstacles in combating HIV/AIDS. Married couples often fail to discuss sexual health despite the fact that half of HIV infections occur within marriage. Parents rarely talk to their children about how to protect themselves from infection. Overall, the lack of openness increases ignorance and creates stigma around discovering one’s HIV status.
One of AMREF’s programs in Tanzania, the Angaza project, meaning ‘shed light’ in Kiswahili, has made great strides toward reducing the stigma and consequentially, reducing infection rates. Our work there to date has resulted in over half a million people, including Tanzania’s President Kikwete himself , being tested at voluntary counseling and testing sites, over 90 additional counselors being trained and a high profile mass media campaign to encourage people to get tested and know their HIV status.
The UNAIDS report I cited earlier exhorts much more sweeping reforms to respond to the AIDS crisis in Africa. Underlying all their recommendations is, as the report title suggests, a comprehensive search for an African solution to the AIDS epidemic, namely: “1) exploring more diversified funding sources for AIDS (moving away from dependence on foreign aid), 2) creating an African Medicines Regulatory Agency for faster roll-out of drugs and stronger quality assurance, and 3) catalyzing local production of medicines.”
I applaud these recommendations for their bold approach. As an organization that believes in African solutions to African problems, we at AMREF understand that only by identifying long term, sustainable solutions, will we be able to achieve lasting health change in Africa.
I’ll have more to report on later at the end of the HIV/AIDS Conference in Washington. We’re thrilled that AMREF’s Program Leader HIV/AIDS/TB, Dr Abebe Aberra, will be presenting a poster at the conference. He’ll be accompanied by our Director General, Dr. Teguest Guerma, an infectious disease expert who spearheaded a number of innovative HIV programs during her tenure at WHO.
In the meantime, for a stimulating read on how Africa could be combating AIDS with African solutions, I encourage you take a look at this UNAIDS report.