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Don’t give up the fight…

Peter Piot speaks at the opening session of AIDS 2008 / International AIDS Society - Mondaphoto

Global economic recession, growing social inequalities, climate change and food crises are presenting challenges to the global response to HIV and AIDS, UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot said on Sunday at the opening of the XVII International Aids conference in Mexico City.

Dr Piot said the conference takes place in an environment within which for the first time, fewer people are dying of AIDS related illnesses and fewer people are becoming infected with HIV. “For the first time we have empirical evidence that our brilliant coalition can move mountains,” he said.

However all of this is taking place in a fast changing environment. “Our challenge today is to position AIDS in this context – to sustain and build on the gains we’ve made while ensuring that due attention is paid to other major issues,” Dr Piot stated.

He said almost three times as many people become newly infected with HIV as those who start taking antiretroviral treatment. “HIV infections are rising in some countries where we thought prevention had been successful.

And new epidemics are appearing for example among men having sex with men in many Asian cities, in drug users in parts of Africa. Let’s never forget that the epidemic could still bring us new surprises as it has done so many times already.”

He lashed out at critics who claimed, that “we just need one or two things to prevent HIV”, and called for involvement of communities in HIV strategies. “Combination prevention, just like combination treatment is the only feasible option. Anything else is frankly irresponsible.”

Dr Piot said combination prevention involved mobilising for social change around areas such as stigma around HIV, gender based violence and ostracism of sex workers.

Bold leadership needed

He also called for bold leadership on HIV and AIDS which he said is crucial to HIV prevention because it means tackling many controversial and often deep-rooted beliefs. “One of the main lessons of providing antiretroviral therapy to millions of people is that we should not wait until systems are fixed before acting, because I know what would have happened to the three million people on ART today if we had: most would be dead,” he said.

He urged world leaders to strengthen health systems so that they can provide treatment for people living with HIV for decades to come. And with the devastating impact of the twin epidemics of HIV and tuberculosis, Dr Piot called for the strengthening of partnerships among those working in the field of TB.

Statistics show that worldwide 13 per cent of people with AIDS will die of TB. This figure is even higher in African where an estimated 50 per cent of people with AIDS will die of TB. The lack of funding for new research into TB drugs and improved diagnostic treatment has been blamed for poor drug development in that area.

According to the most recent UNAIDS statistics, Sub-Saharan Africa has 22 million of the 33 million people living with HIV globally. It is also home to 1.5 million of the two million people dying as a result of AIDS

This article originally appeared in Panoscope – the AIDS 2008 conference newspaper produced by the Panos Global Aids Programme.

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