This is according to a new report from UNAIDS that was launched on 13th July 2023. The report lays out the steps to reach that goal and clarifies the challenges global regions face in tackling the HIV epidemic. We have a solution if we follow the leadership of countries that have forged a strong political commitment to put people first and invest in evidence-based HIV prevention and treatment programs. That requires strong political leadership, tackling inequalities and ensuring sustainable funding.
The biggest breakthroughs are occurring in countries that have forged and maintained a strong political commitment to put people first and invest sufficiently in proven strategies. According to the report, Botswana, Eswatini, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have already achieved what is known as the “95-95-95” targets: 95 per cent of the people who are living with HIV know their status, 95 per cent of those who know that they are living with HIV are on lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, and 95 per cent of people in treatment are virally suppressed.
Despite the giant strides the world has made in combating the HIV epidemic, there is still a long way to go to meet the aspiration of ending AIDS by 2030. AIDS claimed a life every minute last year, said the UN agency, and some 9.2 million people still miss out on treatment, including 660,000 children living with HIV.
We had a high rate of infections among women and adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as childhood HIV infections. Every week of 2022, 4,000 teen girls and young women became infected with HIV. Of these, 77.5% (3,100) infections occurred in Africa, this continues to hamper progress in the fight to end AIDS.
This according to the UNAIDS report 2022 is attributed to teen girls and young women living in poorer environments often have transactional sex with older men, for example, in exchange for gifts, food or school fees. Gender and other inequalities, along with violence, stigma, discrimination and harmful laws and practices, sabotage their abilities to protect themselves from HIV.
While greater emphasis on reaching adolescent girls and young women with HIV interventions has seen HIV incidence among them decline substantially in most countries with high HIV burdens, although at a slower rate than among adolescent boys and young men since 2010. Treatment coverage among people from key populations continues to be generally lower than among people living with HIV overall. Men living with HIV are significantly less likely than women living with HIV to access testing and treatment services in sub-Saharan Africa while testing and treatment coverage and viral suppression rates also lag among children and adolescents. “This is a sub-Saharan crisis,” says Winnie Byanyima, the Executive Director of UNAIDS.
Alongside the overall reduction in numbers of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa, there are a few countries where new infections have risen since 2010, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Mauritania. Generally, across the region, however, countries with diverse epidemics and economic means are combining proven prevention options including expanding the use of treatment as prevention to bring about large reductions in new HIV infections.
Programs for preventing the transmission of HIV during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding have averted an estimated 3.4 million infections in children (aged 0–14 years) since 2000. This has seen about 82% of pregnant or breastfeeding women living with HIV receiving antiretroviral therapy in 2022, up from 48% in 2010. Coverage is even higher in Eastern and Southern Africa, at 93% where Botswana has achieved a milestone in the pathway towards eliminating vertical HIV transmission.
The achievements of the global HIV response have more general relevance and impact too. By protecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, HIV programs are shielding them against poverty and food insecurity, enabling them to financially support the schooling of their children, and contributing to the ongoing reduction in deaths in children and maternal mortality.
As advocated by the Global Alliance to End AIDS in Children, focused efforts and markedly stronger commitment are needed to address the unequal HIV service access and outcomes experienced by children. This includes making integrated antenatal and postnatal care and HIV services more affordable and convenient, especially for adolescent girls and women who are stigmatized and marginalized, or who require parental consent to access services.
Comprehensive sexuality education and integrated HIV and sexual and reproductive health services are gateways to the information, support, and tools all adolescent girls and young women need to make their own healthy decisions about their lives to protect their health and that of others whether they are living with HIV. The holistic care and advocacy led by networks of women living with HIV have led to the realization of rights for many women and their families.
The UNAIDS Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima, said that today’s leaders have the opportunity to save millions of lives and be “remembered by future generations” as those who put a stop to the world’s deadliest pandemic. “The data and evidence in the report we are releasing today shows that there is a path that ends AIDS by 2030,” She added. “The path that ends AIDS is the same path that will help societies to be prepared for future pandemics and that will also help Countries to achieve sustainable development goals.”
The struggle against HIV and AIDS has been dependent on the funding that is available. While the scenarios presented here demonstrate that considerably more resources are needed, the issue is also about how different Organizations involved in the fight against AIDS can leverage on what is available to achieve more, especially when resources are limited.
New knowledge and the application of existing knowledge about the virus and its spread will be crucial. The greatest impact is likely to come from combining three aspects: biomedical knowledge; a better understanding of sexual behavior; holistic and spiritual knowledge that looks at the whole person with the understanding that ‘AIDS demands that we reaffirm our faith in Christ, that through him, love conquers death. If that is where we stand, seeing ourselves as the body of Christ on earth, then we must see HIV and AIDS as the call of our time to reach out in compassion and love to those who suffer, those in need. In loving, seeing, treating, considering these neighbors as ourselves, we will truly see Christ in them and serve them.’
In the year 2012, the Synod’s message noted the Church’s valuable work in fighting HIV and AIDS and caring for those affected and expressed agreement with Pope Benedict that condoms would not beat the pandemic. It asked people to recognize the success obtained by prevention programs advocating abstinence and fidelity within marriage. The Synod’s propositions also spoke about AIDS, calling for efforts against anything “that helps the spread of the disease, such as poverty, the breakdown of family life, marital unfaithfulness, promiscuity and a lifestyle that is devoid of human values and Gospel virtues.”
The Catholic Church continues to walk with the vulnerable in society by promoting the education of girls and women, opening shelters for those who are abused, the orphans and taking care of those that are infected and affected by HIV. During the Africa Synodal Continental Assembly Referring then to the invitation to “widen the space of the tent”, Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator SJ, President of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), recalled how the image of the tent taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah can be compared to the African Tukul, the house par excellence consisting of a roof, walls and a central pole. Whether it is a tent or a Tukul, “the Church-house has no doors that close, but a perimeter that continually widens”. It is “a tent, a family where everyone can find a place and a home.”
As we seek a more adequate response to the challenges posed by HIV and AIDS today, which require both a global and a local response. “We are hopeful but it is not the relaxed optimism that might come if all was heading as it should be”, said Ms. Byanyima. “It is, instead, a hope rooted in seeing the opportunity for success, an opportunity that is dependent on action. The facts and figures shared in this report do not show that as a world we are already on the path, they show that we can be. The way is clear.”.
Much has been pointed out on the clear path to ending AIDS, particularly among the youth living with HIV and how to address the factors rendering them more vulnerable. The African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) started under the banner of fidelity, has been contributing immensely to the fight in ending AIDS by being guided by the 2nd and 3rd Jesuit Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP); walking with the poor, the outcasts of the world, and those whose dignity has been violated in a mission of reconciliation and justice and accompanying the young people in the creation of a hope-filled future, respectively. Through its action-oriented programs and interventions carried out at the community level across 18 centers in 16 countries in Africa, the program focuses on the formation of a whole person by forming the conscience of the young person encouraging personal responsibility whereby they are capable of addressing life challenges which are deeply rooted to the value of Cura Personalis means “Care of the Whole Person.” AJAN strives to use a holistic approach in imparting the values of “caring of Self” and “caring of Others,” by Creating a more Caring and Compassionate African generation full of hope and committed to protecting the Planet.
By, Dennis Owuoche,
AJAN Communications Officer