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AIDS 2006 Comes to a Close

Marches, demonstrations, tears and laughter, bold statements and cries for help were all a part of the 16th International AIDS Conference, which ended Friday in Toronto. VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua was there.

Some 24,000 delegates attended this year’s conference, also called AIDS 2006. There were literally thousands of scientific, social and community presentations and papers.

The co-chair was Dr. Mark Wainberg.

“This conference cannot be deemed a success unless we collectively realize our theme of Time to Deliver. Indeed we will have failed unless we rapidly and dramatically expand by millions the numbers of people around the world with access to anti-retroviral drugs. Clearly, progress cannot be achieved if more people continue to become infected by HIV each year than the numbers that are able to access treatment.”

UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis, whose term expires at the end of the year, was keynote speaker at the closing ceremony. He was outspoken, as he was throughout the conference. Lewis criticized those promoting an abstinence-only policy for HIV prevention, which requires other countries to adhere to that policy before getting funding.

“Ideological rigidity almost never works when applied to the human condition. Moreover, it’s an antiquated throwback to the conditionality of yesteryear to tell any government how to allocate its money for prevention. That approach has a name. It’s called neo-colonialism.”

Lewis stressed cultural sensitivity and quality medical care and said more awareness is needed about how male circumcision can help prevent HIV infection.

“The men are lining up for the procedure in Swaziland. And when I was in the Zambian copper belt just a couple of weeks ago, at an animated meeting with the district commissioner, he indicated he was part of an ethnic group that was circumcised. I then revealed that I was circumcised. And there followed a joyous frenzy of male bonding, amongst all the circumsizees.”

But Lewis’ turned serious again when he called for multi-drug treatment for all HIV-positive mothers to prevent infection in their newborns.

“It is inexcusable that in Africa and other parts of the developing world we continue to use single dose Navirapine rather than full triple therapy.”

The UN Special Envoy addressed the issue of violence against women, saying it is not only the young who are being raped.

”How would you characterize an emerging pattern of the sexual assault of women between the ages of 65 and 80? The rapists [seem] confident they can rape with impunity without fear of transmission. Sexual violence is everywhere reported, from marital rape to rape as a war crime. The phenomenon is by no means singularly African. We live in a world community where the depravity of sexual violence has run amok. In Africa, however, the violence and the virus go together.”

As for the growing number of AIDS orphans, Lewis describes the problem as “walking on the knife’s edge of an unsolvable human tragedy.”

“In Africa, the grandmothers are the unsung heroes of the continent. These extraordinary, resilient, courageous women, fighting through the inconsolable grief of the loss of their own adult children, becoming parents again in their 50’s and 60’s and 70’s and 80’s. I attended a grandmother’s gathering last weekend on the eve of the conference. The grandmothers were magnificent. But they’re all struggling with the same anguished nightmare; what happens to my grandchildren when I die?”

Lewis has been a leading force both in his capacity as a UN envoy and through his foundation for gender equality. He’s called for a new UN agency for women.

It’s not clear who will replace Stephen Lewis as the next UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. But he has a suggestion.

“…For my own part, when I leave the post of envoy at the end of the year I have asked that my successor be an African, but most important, an African woman.”

Preparations are already underway for the 17th International AIDS Conference, which will be held in Mexico City in 2008.

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