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Experts: Human Rights Overlooked in Fight to Stop Spread of AIDS - 2004-07-14

Delegates to the 15th International AIDS Conference are being reminded that patients' human rights are often overlooked in the fight to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Speakers in Bangkok this week have lumped a number of issues - including discrimination against AIDS sufferers and inadequate counseling - under the heading of human rights, and they say conferences like this one often overlook such issues.

Sophia Gruskin works for the international health and human rights program at the Harvard School of Public Health. She says that in their zeal to test the public for HIV/AIDS, some medical workers are failing to inform people what they are really being tested for or are failing to explain what a positive test for the AIDS virus will mean to their lives.

"Now the problem is that HIV testing is highly politicized these days in a way that it really hasn't been in about 15 years," she said. "It seems unfortunately that many of the new efforts to scale up testing are being framed in such a way that they appear to be pitting human rights norms against public health goals."

Ms. Gruskin says HIV testing has been increased because health professionals are anxious to get help to those who need it. People who test positive to HIV can now prolong their lives with antiretroviral drugs, or ARVs, assuming they can afford them.

However, Ms. Gruskin says no one should be tested for HIV without his or her permission. And she says people have a right to be given adequate counseling about the disease before and after testing.

The stigmatization of and discrimination against HIV/AIDS sufferers has been a problem ever since the disease was first diagnosed in the early 1980s. Sharifah Nazneen Agha, program coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS, says these are problems that are still not dealt with adequately.

"I think it's a combination of things," she said. "Stigma and discrimination is still, I think, top of the list. It's also right to access of treatment and health, particularly for drug users, nobody cares about giving ARVs to drug users. Also the rights of sex workers too, education on safe sex." Vivek Divan, an AIDS campaigner from India, says human rights should be given emphasis at AIDS conferences, alongside the political and medical aspects of the disease.

"I think as human rights advocates we should realize that maybe the rights-based approach in the context of HIV hasn't gone far enough. I think we should bring it back into the center of meetings like these," said Mr. Divan.

More than 20,000 people from all over the world are attending the Bangkok AIDS conference, including government officials, scientists, health workers, activists and celebrities.