All African nations unite against AIDS at Zimbabwe conference

Ingy Deif for Ahram Online from Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday 30 Nov 2015

To highlight the huge strides that have been made and underpin the challenges that still loom in the fight against AIDS, thousands convene for the 18th ICASA conference in Zimbabwe

18th ICASA opening ceremony
18th ICASA opening ceremony (Photo: Ingy Deif)

On 29 November, as colourful flags from different African nations circulated around the conference hall celebrating the diversity of the continent and welcoming attendance, the 18th International Conference on Aids and STI's in Africa (ICASA) officially kicked off.

Between 29 November and 4 December, the Zimbabwean capital Harare sees thousands gather for the 18th ICASA conference 2015, the biggest AIDS conference in Africa, titled “AIDS in the post 2015 Era, Linking Leadership, Science & Human rights.”

The international community from the world’s leading scientists, policy makers, activists, people living with HIV, government leaders and civil society representatives were invited to take a part at the efforts to see Africa free of AIDS by 2030, as stated in the last UN general Assembly held in New York.

United against AIDS

“We are here because of your success stories,” said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe at the opening ceremony of the conference to a huge round of applause from the audience. “Africa is on the brink of breaking the AIDS epidemic and we have no time to lose in the next five years so that it doesn’t rebound.”

“Years and experience have shown that in regards to combating HIV/AIDS ambition pays off, if someone said years ago that 15 million people, 11 million of whom are in Africa, will be on successful treatment, no one would have believed him, but now it is fact, with 7.8 million lives saved globally, and 30 million infections evaded,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional director for Africa.

“To bring this epidemic to an end, a much greater effort must be made to ensure that the key and vulnerable populations and adolescents gain access to HIV treatment and prevention services in Africa. This can be achieved by public education on risk factors, the application of the new WHO treatment guidelines and the renewal of political and financial commitment, she said.

Ms Laila Pakkala, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa said in her speech that an effective AIDS global response actually under pins all development goals declared by the UN, focusing on the importance of paying more attention to adolescents in Africa between the ages of 10 and 18, who are the only category that witnessed a triple increase in the number of infections in the last year, and where AIDS remains the leading cause of death.

“The burden falls on sub-Saharan Africa, but the responsibility is shouldered on each one of us,” she concluded.

The World Health Organization (WHO) drew attention before the conference to the huge strides already achieved in regards to the fight against the disease, with fewer people getting infected worldwide, which makes it realistic to aspire to end the epidemic by 2030, as stated in the last UN general Assembly held in New York.

Insights from UN officials

Dr Luiz Loures, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director talked in his speech on the second day of the conference on the negative impact of exclusion:

“People are getting infected with HIV all over the world, and are dying from AIDS-related illnesses, and this should not be happening anywhere in any country, regardless of where it is on the globe.

“The main point is that we have the instruments and the tools. It is not HIV that is holding us back, but rather the exclusion and the discrimination.

“Science has given us the tools to end this epidemic, but the key is to let everybody have access to the treatment regardless of their sexual orientation, whether they inject drugs or not, young or old, male or female, they should have the medication, this is the real challenge. What is happening today in Africa, there is an upward trend of increase in infections especially among those excluded, and this is simply unacceptable,” he said

Ahram Online talked to Sheila Tlou, UNAIDS director for regional support team in Eastern and Southern Africa prior to the opening ceremony, who said that the UNAIDS targets against HIV aim at launching the Fast-Track response against aids in the next five years to obtain 90-90-90 treatment target by 2020.

She explained that it encompasses reaching 90% of people living with HIV knowing their status, 90% of those initiated on treatment, and finally getting 90% of those on treatment virally suppressed, by adhering to the treatment course.

Tlou added that among the most important procedures are targeting key populations with further reach and testing, and encouraging more domestic resources of funding these endeavours rather than depending on external funds.

Dr Julitta Onabanjo, UNFPA director of the Regional office for East and Southern Africa also talked to Ahram Online about means to reach the target of eliminating AIDS in Africa:

“We cannot get to zero without targeting adolescent girls, who are in many parts of the continent five times more likely to acquire HIV because of social norms and gender inequality, and we cannot reach zero without acknowledging that this is a sexually transmitted disease, thus more education should be targeted to younger people, whom we cannot deny this pivotal tool of awareness and prevention."

She hailed the role of civil society and stressed the role of governments to back those entities, who actually shoulder much of the effort to reach a helping hand of support to people living with aids and raise awareness.

“Where governments have failed to acknowledge that is where we actually have a problem,” she said.

A moving documentary

One of the highly attended events was the screening of a moving and insightful documentary that witnessed hundreds in attendance and shed light on the struggle to achieve cheaper generic ART drugs for less privileged countries, and specifically, African ones.

Through the endeavours of a number of names, the documentary presented a moving panorama of bravery, humanitarianism, and the fight against the greed of major pharmaceutical companies until every party was persuaded to come on board in the fight against this pandemic. The names included well known activist Zachi Akhmat who boycotted expensive ART treatment although he could afford it until they became available and cheaper for everyone in South Africa in a highly publicised campaign. Also important were the efforts of Indian drug manufacturer Youssef Hamid backed by the brave investigative journalism of the New York Times, as well as the tremendous breakthrough brought by Clinton’s initiatives and the PEPFAR intervention plan brought by the US.

The documentary showed how the genuine efforts of individuals can mobilise international efforts to make a stand against AIDS that claimed the lives of millions in the 'eighties and 'nineties, before ART and their generics became available and affordable, making the cost plunge, from $15,000 a year per person for the cost of treatment to less than an annual cost of $100 per person nowadays.

The conference showcases work of major players in the fight against AIDS, in three major branches: leadership, science, and human rights, and is chaired by Dr Ihab Abdel- Rahman Ahmed, president of the Society for AIDS in Africa (SAA) and co-chaired by Dr. Pagwesese David Parirenyatwa, Health and Child Care minister representing the government of Zimbabwe.


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