Drama, intrigue, renewed hope, courage and fear at opening of 2018 AIDS Conference

Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus – WHO

As some 15,000 delegates, made up of researchers, scientists, activists and People living with HIV gathered in the Dutch capital, Amsterdam Tuesday July 23, 2018 for the opening of the conference, many had expectations as they waited for the speeches to begin, but what happened can be described as empowering, overwhelming or inspiring or even troubling. The words, happenings and people who mounted the stage at different times to speak stirred a mixture of emotions, shared words of fury, hope, faith, fear and motivation. And a powerful person who stood up to address the gathering was challenged by women who believe he doesn’t deserve to stand before the gathering to speak, because he doesn’t serve their interests.

Death sentence turned into treatable disease

And despite progress being made, the HIV response appears to be suffering a setback. Speaking at the event, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said since the turn of the century, incredible progress has been made and the tide has been turned against HIV.

“We have turned a death sentence into a treatable disease,” he said. He noted that millions of people are on treatment, but even better, millions more are not on treatment, “Because we gave them the tools to protect themselves,” Ghebreyesus said.

He noted that the boundaries of science are being pushed and, “We are now in hot pursuit of a cure,” he said.

According to Ghebreyesus, the gains that have been made are coming under threat because of among others, “signs of wavering political commitment and declining funding,” he stated.

He mentioned the five-year development plan approved by the World Health Assembly in May 2017 to help countries towards the achievement of their sustainable development goals – at the heart of which is “the triple billion targets for 2023. One billion people more benefitting from universal health coverage – and one billion more people better protected from health emergencies and one billion more people enjoying better health and wellbeing,” he said.

He assured the gathering that the WHO is being transformed to make it capable of delivering on these goals, “not in Geneva, but on the ground in countries.”

According to him, the WHO is helping countries around the world to strengthen universal health coverage to ensure that all people have the services that they need without facing financial hardship.

“The reality that more than half of the world’s population lacks access to essential health services including vaccination, treatment for HIV, hepatitis and TB, family planning services and the ability to see a health worker. And every year, almost 100 million people are pushed into extreme poverty for paying for the cost of care out of their own pockets. This outrage must end,” he said.

Dutch government pledges €10m for global health care

The Dutch government pledged €10 million to provide Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEp) to those who need it in other countries.

In her presentation, Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation urged the community to build bridges and break barriers.

She said: “It is your fight and call to action, human rights calls. Global call on our common humanity to build bridges – we are committed to join the causes that you stand for – to join your fight. It’s a call to action and we will support it, politically, operationally and in our partnerships,” she said.

She indicated that The Netherlands commits to sustain and foster an inclusive, diverse society and with that tangible political and financial support for marginalised communities, and in particular people living with HIV and AIDS.

“This is about stigma, this is the battle against marginalization and inclusion. The Netherlands has been successful with inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is the name of the game,” she said.

Indicating that some progress has been made on one hand, she noted however that 970,000 people have died of AIDS in 2017 alone and some 37 million others are infected or living with HIV today.

She also pointed out that some progress has been made, in the sense of access to services – and some 22 million people have access to treatment and antiretroviral drugs. “That’s an achievement, but what about the 15 million others who are excluded. Who may not be able to speak, seek treatment or too afraid to reach out for help?” She asked.

She said the fact that treatment is lacking for these people to save their lives in 2018 is unconscionable.

She stated further that currently over 30 per cent of HIV infections occur among people of the age 15 to 25.

“Our next generation is at risk. Five million young people are infected with HIV today. It is the second highest cause of death among adolescents globally and the first cause of death among adolescents in Africa. She therefore, urged the gathering to listen to young people and learn, and empower and support them the way they seek it and want it.

Gender based inequality

Ms Kaag wondered why after more than 30 years, despite the progress, the epidemic has not been kept from growing. She stated that gay men and men who have sex with men are 19 times more likely to contract HIV than the general population and this number is increasing around the world, and is a cause of great concern.

“HIV among sex workers is 12 times more than the general population, and people who inject drugs account for an estimated 30 per cent of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa,” she said.

Some of the factors she attributed to the growing HIV incidences are lack of rights among immigrants and gender based inequality, and she called for dialogue and understanding among all stakeholders.

She also called for protection of civic space for individuals, noting that civic space has become restricted, adding that political will is as important as the voice and the implementation.

According to her, 65 countries have adopted restricted legislation – restricting civic spaces and the people most affected are marginalised groups and minority groups.

“No society is whole if anyone is restricted in the exercise of their rights,” she said.

We need to protect young people, decriminalise gay people and those who inject drugs. 

She stated that the Dutch government is providing Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEp) finance for high risk groups in The Netherlands and she announced a €10 million pledge outside of The Netherlands to reach those that nobody else wants to reach with PrEP.

Gender equality

In her presentation, Linda-Gail Bekker of the International AIDS Society called for including young people in conversation.

“Success in fighting HIV requires that all of activities are relevant to and resonate with young people. The merits of gender equality are no longer up for debates. Treating women and girls like second class citizens is not acceptable and this practice can no longer be ignored.

“We need to come together across generations to say enough is enough. Enough of letting ideology rule over evidence-based realities, enough of offering HIV and sexual reproductive health care services separately or even worse making doctors and nurses choose one over the other. This has disastrous health consequences for women, girls and the society at large. Enough of women and girls not having access to basic services because of shame or taboo or lack of access to education – or because men make the rules,” she said.

Michel Sidibé of UNAIDS heckled

But when it was the turn of Michel Sidibé, the Director General of UNAIDS to speak, a group of women interrupted and heckled him.

The women asked why Sidibé, who they accused of being an enabler of sexual harassment of women was allowed into spaces like the AIDS Conference.

Women’s rights groups around the world have been calling for Sidibé’s resignation or dismissal since news broke of his attempts to cover up sexual harassment allegations against his former deputy and for interfering with investigation into the complaint. Sidibé meanwhile has continued to insist on remaining in his position by threatening UNAIDS staff from coming forward with future claims of abuse. He has also initiated an expensive PR campaign to garner public support for his stance.

The conference is under the theme “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges”

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Copyright ©2018 by Creative Imaginations Publicity
All rights reserved. This report or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in reviews.

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