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International AIDS Conference gives reasons to hope

Hope: this one word sums up the views of three African Jesuit priests who were among 20,000 participants at the 19th International AIDS Conference held in Washington DC from 22 to 27 July.

The Jesuits, participating on behalf of AJAN, left with renewed hope due to positive developments reported from the ground and the genuine desire they felt in policymakers and others to really “turn the tide together” – the IAC motto – and to end AIDS.

There were questions and doubts too, especially around the sustainability of the AIDS response. This is hardly surprising given the recent plateau or decline in international funding for many programmes and the reality that there are still eight million people who need treatment but are not getting it yet.

But the overall message was upbeat. “Scientists, artists and statesmen said one thing in common in their speeches at the conference: let’s put an end to the pandemic that has caused so much suffering to humanity,” said Fr Jean-Simon Ratsimbazafy SJ from Madagascar.

“This conference has been for me a conference of hope,” said AJAN Coordinator Paterne Mombé SJ. “I was encouraged by the acknowledgement that the scourge called HIV/AIDS is still among us and requires sustained commitment, and I have the feeling that leaders, including those of African countries, are committed to putting AIDS back on their agenda and playing their role.”

Compared to a previous IAC he attended, Fr Mombé was more impressed by this year’s edition: “From day one, it appeared to me that there was progress in many respects: the focus was on real issues, less on particular lobbies, and on good results that led many to announce the end of AIDS.”

Fr Désiré Yamuremye SJ from Burundi agreed: “I take away with me the message: Together, we can make an AIDS-free generation. The engagement of many donors, especially the USA, to continue to increase funds to fill the treatment gap, is a sign of hope. Another is the commitment of African governments to increase the budget of health in general and HIV/AIDS in particular.”

Fr Désiré also mentioned achievements emerging in the field: “In some countries, Botswana to name one, the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) is becoming a reality. This is a good hope.”

The elimination of PMTCT emerged as one of the core messages of the IAC, emphasised by by UNAIDS chief Michel Sidibé and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Other key messages to emerge were: treatment as prevention; zero stigma; and the need for continued financial support, more political leadership and country ownership of the struggle against AIDS.

The straightforward talking of the US Secretary of State was welcomed. “I’ve heard a few voices from people raising questions about America’s commitment to an AIDS-free generation,” said Clinton. “Well, I am here today to make it absolutely clear: the United States is committed and will remain committed to achieving an AIDS-free generation.”

But apart from pledging the US’ support, Clinton also urged others to do their part. “Many calls were crystalized in the speech of Hillary Clinton,” said Fr Mombé. “Her message was: we have gone too far to go back and she called on other countries to commit themselves so that together we can turn the tide.”

“According to Clinton,” added Fr Désiré, “we can end AIDS, but we need patience, courage and the involvement of all.”

However Fr Jean-Simon sounded a note of realistic caution: “Specialists are talking about the possible end of the epidemic although there is no cure yet, there are treatments that can control the disease and avoid the spread of new infections. But the question remains: in such a difficult economic context, how can funding be found to put all patients on treatment? Can there really be an end to HIV and people with HIV cured?”

The concern about funding is borne out by sober facts. An article by Caritas Internationalis published toward the end of the IAC said: “With faith-based communities counting on external support, we are experiencing funding cuts that compromise the reach and quality of our services… funders brought the sobering news that increases in funding are not likely given the climate of the global economic crisis. Representatives of faith-based organisations candidly shared that they are being told to ‘do more with less’ and then pointed out that this is not possible when eight million more people need to get access to medicines if we want to save their lives.”

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