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Focus on ICASA 2015: Africa, rise up to finish with HIV and AIDS!

The 18th edition of the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) was held in Zimbabwe at the end of 2015. The conference, which brought together leading scientists, practitioners, activists and organizations, started on 29 November and ended on 4 December. AJAN was represented at ICASA by participants from AJAN House and from Benin, Madagascar, Burundi and Zimbabwe itself. They contributed to the collective pool of knowledge and resources by sharing their own experiences, best practices and pragmatic approaches. Elphège Quenum SJ, from the Centre for Research, Studies and Creativity (CREC) in Benin, shares some insights from the conference:

“To finish with HIV and AIDS by 2030!” This was the main message of ICASA 2015. This important and international gathering brings together, every two years, individuals and organizations to share experiences and knowledge in a bid to combine efforts to overcome AIDS. 

Twelve years ago I attended the 2003 edition of ICASA in Nairobi. Since then, there has been significant progress. The environment has become more comprehensive, encouraging and hopeful. Much has been done in prevention, treatment, care and research. And although people still lay strong claim to their differences, the climate was smoother. But the challenge is still there. New infections still occur and people still die of HIV-related diseases. Stigma, cultural and religious beliefs and other factors still expose people to HIV infection.

The goal of UNAIDS now is 90-90-90: by 2020, 90% of people living with HIV to be diagnosed; 90% to be accessing antiretroviral treatment; 90% to achieve viral suppression by 2020. This is a hope-filled message for key populations infected and affected by the pandemic.

ICASA gave the opportunity to share insightful experiences. Plenty of significant commitments were expressed by partners, donors and international organizations. While this mobilization is very encouraging, it must also be acknowledged that little was said about other challenges, chief among them poverty and other severe diseases like malaria and hepatitis B and C that ease the spread of HIV. My view is that ultimately there can be no REAL success against HIV without addressing other damaging diseases.

Another insight that came to me during the conference is that the real battle against AIDS should empower African populations to respond from within. Poor populations are vulnerable and may continue being exposed to HIV even while progress is being made. Africa needs to be empowered to rise up and finish with AIDS.

Attending ICASA strengthened my conviction that we, Jesuits and co-workers, should not stay away from the common effort to finish with HIV and AIDS in Africa. One of the sessions I attended was about a “think tank” bringing together people from different backgrounds. This may inspire AJAN to create an “SJ HIV Think Tank” that can help AJAN to reflect on AIDS-related issues alongside other challenges threatening Africa.

 

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