AMSTERDAM — The fight to end HIV/AIDS was given a boost by a star-studded week of presentations, panel sessions and the occasional protest at this year’s International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. However, tensions within the community remain, and with few new funding pledges announced, there are questions about how to translate strong rhetoric into action.
Some 16,000 stakeholders from more than 160 countries gathered in the Dutch capital last week for AIDS 2018, the conference’s 22nd edition and one of the biggest events in the global health calendar, featuring sessions on the latest HIV science, policy, and practice.
The week-long event was awash with celebrities including Elton John, Charlize Theron, and the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry, as well as former United States President Bill Clinton, who gave the keynote speech at the closing plenary. The heads of the world’s major health donors, notably U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Global Fund to Fight, AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, World Health Organization and Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS were also in attendance.
Held under the theme of “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges,” the real story of this year’s conference was the growing realization that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is in crisis, with 1.8 million new infections in 2017. There are also alarming spikes in new HIV cases among key groups including adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa and drug users in eastern Europe and parts of Asia, according to recent figures from UNAIDS. At the same time, development assistance for HIV dropped $3 billion between 2012 and 2017, according to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“The feel is definitely less congratulatory than past conferences and more sobering,” Rachel Baggaley, coordinator for HIV prevention and testing at WHO, told Devex, but added that it was good to see the community responding with force. The activist spirit which has defined the fight against AIDS in the past was never far away, she noted, with many sessions interrupted by campaigners.
“It is very positive to see the AIDS movement hasn’t gone away … I went feeling rather down and have come away challenged and inspired; there’s a lot of things we must do and a lot of people who continue to take this [AIDS agenda] forward,” she said.
excerpt of Devex takeaways:
- Target key populations
- Prevention pay off
- A youth bulge
- The need for integration
- Medical developments
- The Trump effect
1. Target key populations
Attendees agreed that, without drastic change, the world will see global HIV targets missed and a possible resurgence of the epidemic. But Peter Piot, founding executive director of UNAIDS and now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned the targets themselves could leave key populations even further behind.
Speaking on Thursday, Piot reminded the audience that the 90-90-90 targets set by UNAIDS in 2014 will miss 27 percent of HIV patients. The framework calls for countries to get 90 percent of people living with HIV diagnosed; 90 percent of those diagnosed to be accessing treatment; and 90 percent of people on treatment to have suppressed viral loads by 2020.
"The 90-90-90 targets are actually 90-81-73,” he said, adding that “what the future of the epidemic is going to be determined by is the 10-10-10” — those not hit by the targets.
The 10-10-10 is likely to be made up of key populations including sex workers, men who have sex with men, LGBTI groups, people who inject drugs, and young people — all of whom are less likely to access HIV services due to social stigma, discrimination, criminalization, and other barriers, Piot said. These groups currently account for 47 percent of people with new infections, according to UNAIDS data.
Reaching these key populations was high on the agenda last week. Dudu Dlamini, a campaigner for sex workers’ health and rights who was awarded the Prudence Mabele prize for HIV activism during the conference, spoke to Devex about the need to decriminalize sex work in order to remove barriers to HIV services for sex workers.
Leading HIV scientists also put out a statement in the Journal of the International AIDS Society about laws that criminalize people with HIV for not disclosing their status and for exposing or transmitting the disease. Such laws, which exist in 68 countries, “have not always been guided by the best available scientific and medical evidence,” it said, and when used inappropriately can reinforce stigma and undermine efforts to fight the disease. Read more via Devex