Wed, Jul 25, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Concerns over HIV upturn dominate AIDS assembly

DIRE WARNINGS:In eastern Europe and central Asia new infections have increased 30 percent since 2010, International AIDS Society president Linda-Gail Bekker said

AFP, AMSTERDAM

Actress Charlize Theron, right, representing the “Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, South Africa,” embraces a sex worker in the Global Village, a diverse space where communities from all over the world gather to meet, during the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

Concerns over an HIV resurgence caused by strict drug laws fueling an epidemic blamed on needle sharing dominated a world AIDS assembly that opened in Amsterdam on Monday.

Thousands of delegates — researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with the virus — gathered for a five-day war council amid dire warnings that complacency and a shortage of funds might yet cause AIDS to spiral out of control.

The 22nd International AIDS conference would seek to harness the star power of celebrity activists Charlize Theron, Elton John and Prince Harry to bolster a battle that experts warn is losing ground in some parts of the world.

“In eastern Europe and central Asia new infections have increased 30 percent since 2010,” International AIDS Society president Linda-Gail Bekker said. “This conference, we hope ... will also shine a spotlight on this region, the only region in the world where HIV is rapidly increasing, in large part related to injecting drug use.”

In recent days, experts have alerted that new HIV infections, while down overall, were rising in about 50 countries as global attention has waned and funding leveled off.

Many lamented that too sharp a focus on virus-suppressing treatment might have diverted attention from basic prevention programs such as condom distribution, with the result that the AIDS-causing virus is still spreading easily among vulnerable groups.

“Despite all the remarkable advances that have been made, progress on ending AIDS is still slow,” WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus said, adding that the world “will not” meet UN 2020 targets on HIV/AIDS, “because there are too many places in the world where people don’t get prevention and treatment services they need.”

Spread mainly through sex and blood contact, the immune system-attacking HIV virus has infected nearly 80 million people since the early 1980s. More than 35 million have died.

“When I was born 20 years ago with HIV, the landscape of the epidemic looked very different to what it does now,” said Mercy Ngulube, a youth activist attending the conference.

“It is so wonderful to be able to live a life where I don’t have to wake up and wonder if we have the tools to fight HIV, but it is also sad to live a life where I know that we have the tools and I know that people cannot access them,” she said.

Last week, a report by the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) warned of a long and difficult road ahead.

New infections, although down, were still at 1.8 million last year, far short of the 500,000 annual ceiling the UN is targeting.

Yet, despite the lag, reports show that donor and domestic funding has dropped “significantly” and is likely continue to decline.

According to UNAIDS, the funding gap is almost US$7 billion a year.

A major cause of the resurgence is the criminalization of injecting drugs in many countries, particularly in eastern Europe and central Asia — including Russia.

This forces users onto the fringes of society and puts them at risk of infection through sharing soiled needles, then passing the virus on to their sexual partners.

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