Fighting AIDS resides in the future, not the past

Photo credit: Vinai Dithajohn/UNAIDS
Hara Mihalea and Bobby Ramakant 
Signalling an essential shift away from tokenistic participation of young people in HIV programming to encouraging genuine leadership by them was given strong emphasis at the first ICAAP media briefing ahead of the opening ceremony. “We should put the responsibility of fighting AIDS in the hands of people who have a future, rather than in hands of people who had a history,” declared Mechai Veravaidya, Chairperson of the ICAAP local host organization, The Population and Community Development Association.

Echoing his own role in the history of the AIDS response, the popularly named ‘Mr Condom’ in Thailand recounted how HIV rates in the country plummeted 90% from 1991 to 2003 as a result of prevention campaigns.

“How many times do we see HIV prevention messages on the roads of Thailand now? We need to up HIV prevention programming again” he said. “HIV prevention needs to enter our minds first – as sex too happens there – not down below,” he added.

Referring to the need for political commitment and funding, Mechai added: “Money talks! Financial commitment from the government is very important. But no government can do it all alone.” As of today though, “our governments are asleep at the wheel,” he concluded. And he may well be right. According to the new UNAIDS report released during the briefing, the number of new HIV infections in Asia and the Pacific has remained constant at around 350,000 per year since 2008.

“We are instead getting to zero change” commented Malu Marin of the Coalition of Asia Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS (7 Sisters). Only half of the people living with HIV in Asia and the pacific who need antiretroviral therapy are getting it, even though the region continues to be a ‘drug warehouse’ of ART for entire world.

The Republic of Fiji was the first country among the Pacific islands to decriminalize same-sex behaviour in 2010. Another major legal reform that recently took place in Fiji was to remove HIV positive status as a legal hurdle for those seeking to live or work in Fiji.

“Punitive legal environments impede implementation of HIV programmes, especially for key populations such as men who have sex with men, transgender populations, sex workers, people who use drugs, prisoners, young people, and women and girls,” said the President of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau. “That is why legal reforms for supportive health policies are crucial for fighting AIDS.”

The President shared that the country had been challenged due to legal barriers preventing key populations, such as MSM, accessing HIV care services. “Incarceration of MSMs made it even harder to reach out to the community. That is why it was important to change laws,” he added. “The benefits of legal reforms have already started materializing in the form of increased HIV service coverage for key populations.”

Hara Mihalea and Bobby Ramakant, Citizen News Service – CNS 
November 2013

Note: This article was first published in 11th ICAAP INSIGHT, the official daily conference newspaper of 11th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (11th ICAAP) in Bangkok, Thailand. This newspaper was managed by Inis Communication and CNS.