AIDS: Rights Now

The 2010 International AIDS Conference in Vienna: a lot of stress and frustration, but also new hope for a promising future

A shirtless young man in his early twenties stood on a table holding a red umbrella, with the words, ‘my body, my business’ written across his chest and chanting “Sarkozy lies, millions die.” With a final shout, he then jumped off to join the boisterous band of protesters, who marched on through the exhibition hall, shifting to “Obama lies, millions die”, and onto the stage for he opening ceremony with, “You made a promise, now make it happen”, and simply, “Show me the money”…

The 2010 International AIDS Conference was all about rights – “Rights here, Right Now” they titled it, to emphasize the importance of human rights in fighting the AIDS epidemic. Although on the opening day of the Vienna conference, some of the other slogans seemed to ring louder.

This year’s conference was different from previous years in many ways. However, a cloud of disappointment hung over the event, as it seemed clear that donors were not likely to meet the $20 billion funding level organizers had hoped for confirming the impact of the recession. U.S. President Barack Obama in particular was coming under attack for  cutting the contribution to $366 million from a promised $1billion. Even at this level, however, the United States was still the most generous donor worldwide, and Austria one of the smallest.

2010 was the deadline set by the world leaders for universal access to AIDS treatment, but at the moment, only a third of those who need treatment are actually receiving it. Furthermore, treatment alone is not enough to stem the spread of the epidemic, funds are needed to develop a successful vaccination as well as proper care for people already infected.

At the exhibition booths, workers hoped this year’s conference would help promote a new outlook in the fight against AIDS – with more emphasis being placed on vaccination following new scientific breakthroughs in this area.  In addition, there were some new products, most dramatically a vaginal microbiocidal gel hat was creating real buzz, and for the first time, it opened up the opportunity for women to protect themselves against the virus.

Most of the support for the vaccine research had come from national governments and the Gates Foundation, reported Lisa Beyer, spokeswoman for International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.  But “there is still a large gap to fill,” she said. “There is more profit in providing treatment, as research for vaccinations is not close enough to license an actual product ready for the market.” She further stressed the importance of developing a vaccine. As with polio and smallpox, it is the only way to actually eliminate a disease.

“But even when there is a vaccination that works,” said Alexandre Doyen, Portfolio Manager of the Joint Health Impact, whose work is based in Nairobi in Kenya. “There are still millions of people suffering from HIV and AIDS. This is always going to be a problem that will have to solved.”

It is clear that AIDS is not a one dimensional problem. Current challenges are not only the lack of funding, but also drug trafficking and prostitution. In many countries, the biggest setback is still the stigma and ignorance surrounding it.

A conference participant from India found the stigma puzzling, reported protester Wayne Starks from New York. “He asked me, why do people hate you guys [with HIV] so much? And I couldn’t give an answer.”

Amidst all this, organizers tried to emphasize the important link between protecting human rights and the spreading epidemic. With the exception of Africa, almost 33% of HIV infections are caused by drug use. The most urgent call was for countries to deal effectively with drugs and drug users. The Vienna Declaration to be presented for a vote at the close of the conference outlined the need for governments not to send drug users to jail, but rather to given them clean needles and the appropriate treatment if they should have AIDS.

But the reaction to the declaration from individual governments was undecided.  Only Georgia signed the Vienna Declaration in the end, perhaps related to its antagonistic relationship with Russia, who was opposed.

The legal prejudice against drug users, prostitutes, men who have sex with men, and immigrants greatly increases the spread of the epidemic, and only complicate efforts to treat.

“In China, there are entire AIDS villages as the result of selling blood. But people are incredibly prejudiced against people with HIV and AIDS, even children,” explained an AIDS worker working in orphanages in Taiwan and the Henan province in China. Because of this, the orphanages are not publicised to avoid negative reactions against the children. One particular orphanage was taken to court by the local community to evict it from the locality, when the neighbors found out it harbored children with AIDS.

“Governments have to do more,” she said. “At the moment, rehab centers and even mental hospitals do not accept HIV-infected persons.” More education is needed, she emphasized. “So many people still think that you can contract the disease through mosquito bites. A major priority should also be placed on education campaigns to get over “sex as a taboo.”

All the AIDS care workers interviewed expressed similar views towards government action and education. In Russia, where a full one percent of the adult population is infected, methadone treatments for pain are still banned by the government. South Africa is at the top of the list, with the largest infected population. But prior to 2000, the government denied any causal relationship between the virus HIV and AIDS.

On the opening day of the 2010 International AIDS conference, delegates praised Vienna’s organisation of the event and one Japanese woman was particularly impressed with the free travel and lunch. Still, some delegates questioned the choice.

“I understand that they wanted Vienna as it is at the border between East and West Europe,” asked Doyen from the Joint Health Impact. “But why not host it in a country where AIDS is societal and not just in marginalized groups?”

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