Vienna 2010: Opening session on HIV and rights

Under the theme of ‘Rights here, Right Now’, 20,000 participants from more than 185 countries have assembled in Vienna for the XVIII International AIDS Conference. Julio Montaner, AIDS 2010 Chair, President of the International AIDS Society and Director of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS in Vancouver, Canada in his opening speech expressed, “I cannot hide my profound disappointment and deep frustration with the recently concluded G8/G20 meetings in Canada. By failing to take responsibility for the Universal Access pledge, and more importantly for failing to articulate next steps to meet not just the 6th MDG but all of them by 2015, the G8 has quite simply failed us”.

Some of these countries have used the fiscal crisis as an excuse, but over the last year the same leaders bailed out the greedy Wall Street bankers and a full 110 billion Euros appeared for the Greek economy. The hopes of millions were put on hold when the G8 abandoned any reference to the financial commitments they made in Gleneagles. The G8 cannot ignore their commitment and it must be ensured that AIDS remains at the top of their agenda.

Dr Yves Souteyrand of the World Health Organization stated that addressing human rights violations among vulnerable populations is essential for the future success of the global response. Although the HIV epidemic has stabilized with the annual numbers of deaths declining globally from 2.2 million in 2004 to 2 million in 2008, there are still 2.7 million new infections every year. New infections are particularly high in key population groups such as migrants, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs.

Vienna was chosen as the host city for AIDS 2010 in part due to its proximity to Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA), a region with a growing epidemic fueled primarily by injecting drug use. Conference delegates will examine the epidemic in EECA, as well as in all other regions. Home to two-thirds of all people living with HIV and AIDS, Southern Africa remains the most heavily affected region globally.

In her presentation on the state of human rights in the epidemic, Paula Akugizibwe from AIDS and Rights Alliance of Southern Africa stated, “the greatest barriers to achieving universal access are social, economic and political challenges. In order to accelerate progress and achieve sustained success, there is an urgent need for the HIV response to be based on concrete human rights principles.”

Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS in his opening remarks said, “We cannot settle for a world where some people get treatment while others not. Where some enjoy access to prevention while others are criminalized for who they are and for who they love. Where some are offered hope while the hope of others is crushed.”

Sidibe discussed four pillars as a strategy to achieve the vision of zero new infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS related deaths. He called for a prevention revolution as his first pillar – a global political and social movement rooted in human rights and gender equality. Without a vaccine or cure, the AIDS pandemic will become unmanageable unless the transmission rate is reduced.

Treatment 2.0, the next generation of treatment, is the second pillar. Treatment for prevention is a potent tool. Partnerships with pharmaceutical industries must be scaled up for greater access.

Ending discrimination is the third pillar. No one should endure discrimination; laws must work for all vulnerable people, not against them. The US government took a giant step this week with the announcement that US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) will now support needle exchange and substitution therapy.

The fourth pillar is gender equality. Women must have better tools to protect themselves from HIV, like microbicides and female condoms. They must have the rights, skills and the power to negotiate their own sexuality and they must feel safe from violence.

UNAIDS, PEPFAR, the Global Fund, the Clinton and Gates foundations must all work together with heads of states, ministers of finance and health and civil society to make universal access a reality in country after country.

Ishdeep Kohli-CNS