The former U.N. special envoy for AIDS in Africa is urging scientists to "take a stand" in the fight against the pandemic.
Stephen Lewis, co-founder of AIDS-Free World, spoke this week at the 5th International AIDS Society on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Cape Town, South Africa.
"I think fundamentally, scientists speak about the AIDS pandemic with enormous authority and knowledge, he says. "And if they can speak in a collective voice about what's going wrong, about what the crucial issues are, about where the world should now respond, then they can have an enormous impact."
Scientists are "somewhat passive when it comes to the political fray" that has often surrounded HIV/AIDS, Lewis says.
"When you have millions of lives at risk, it's terribly important that they take a stand."
They must fight on their "own terrain," he says.
"The scientists know what causes the pandemic. The scientists know how to respond…. The scientists don't have to…answer to the arguments of others," he says.
Backlash against AIDS funding
"A number of people, I think for motives largely of resentment rather than logic, are arguing that AIDS has received too much money," Lewis says.
Critics, he says, want money for HIV/AIDS diverted to other issues, such as maternal and reproductive health.
"No one denies the needs in these other areas. But it is frankly crazy to attempt to take money away from one sector of health, which is vital, and apply it to another sector, albeit also vital. What you need is more money. What you need is more resources to do everything," he says.
Lewis wants scientists to call on G8 leaders to fulfill the promises they made on HIV/AIDS at the 2005 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland.
"Scientists have to put the pressure on the G8 countries, who appear inexplicitly and frankly criminally to be backing away from their commitment."
Lewis says he expects AIDS funding to continue but adds, "whether or not it will be adequate is anyone's guess. And inadequacy puts people's lives at risk. And that's just not irresponsible, that's criminal."
Questioned about his use of the word "criminal," Lewis says, "I don't know how else to describe the possibility of people losing their lives as a result of the resources, which were promised, not being forthcoming."
At Gleneagles, G8 leaders promised near universal access to all those in need of treatment for HIV/AIDS by 2010.
"In the last G8 conference a couple of weeks ago in Italy, the word "AIDS" didn't event appear in the communiqué and none of the funding that had been committed was included," he says.
In the renewal of the PEPFAR program in 2008 – the US Congress authorized about $50 billion to be spent over five years on AIDS, TB and malaria. Officials say the goal is to provide treatment for three million people, prevent 12 million new infections and care for another 12 million, including aids orphans and vulnerable children.
The former UN special envoy says while stigma and discrimination over HIV/AIDS are easing in many African countries, there's still a great deal of discrimination around the world against homosexuals and intravenous drug users. Lewis calls the discrimination against homosexuals "homophobia."
He also supports new wording to replace the term "mother-to-child transmission." He says that wording makes it appears that it's the mother's fault a child gets infected. He says the term "vertical transmission" is gaining favor.