“Universal Action Now” is the theme of the upcoming XVII
International AIDS Conference in Mexico City [3-8 August]. The conference will look at some
of the issues that are impeding that goal, with daily panels of plenary
speakers and workshops. Among the
factors that will be considered are a lack of political will to allocate funding,
and discrimination against those who are HIV positive. From Washington, William Eagle
ago,a gang of men stoned to death
South African AIDS activist Gugu Dlamini. Her offence: she announced on a
Zulu language radio station that she was HIV-positive.
Violence is just one result of the
stigma still surrounding the disease and its carriers. This case and similar stories of abuse is one reason why South African judge Edwin Cameron decided to attend the Mexico City gathering this year. Cameron, who is HIV-positive, will lead a plenary session on another cause behind the stigma of HIV: the criminal prosecution of those accused of spreading the disease. As a
result, he says up to 30 million Africans who are likely carrying the virus
fail to get diagnosed.
"The point I will make at
the conference," he says, "is that those statutes, apart from their very broad and vague
wording, are very bad for the central issue of the epidemic, which is getting
treatment to people. With criminal laws like that on the statute books, people are not going to want to be tested. Why would you if you are going to expose yourself to prosecution ? "
Cameron is just one of 17 guest speakers to lead plenary
sessions or lead workshops on topics that are discouraging people from seeking
treatment or gaining universal access to anti-retrovirals.
Other speakers include Adeeba Kamarulzaman, the president of the Malaysian AIDS Council and head of
infectious diseases at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.
She’ll address the conference on
the legal obstacles to ending drug abuse, a leading cause of the spread of
She says the sharing of syringes
by drug abusers is behind much of the spread of the disease in China, Vietnam,
Indonesia and Malaysia. She says, "prevention needs to be
strengthened particularly in Asia where there are new infections happening
every day, especially in marginalized communities. It’s [about]
evidence-based HIV prevention like needle exchange programs and the authority [to
initiate] opiate substitution programs."
Dr. Adeeba explains that two
non-addictive medicines -- methadone and bupenorphine -- can be given to wean drug users from
heroin. Outreach workers can also provide
them with clean needles.
She wants a debate over UN and
national impediments to these strategies – such as “zero tolerance” policies
needle exchanges, and the use of drugs like methadone, to prevent
the spread of HIV among those who inject illegal drugs.
Pedro Cahn is the president of The International Aids Society which is convening the Mexico City Conference. Dr. Cahn says the meeting will
also address a charge made by some – that the attention given to HIV treatment and
prevention weakens overall health care in the developing world.
"This is absolutely not true," he says. "African health care systems were
not OK before [the AIDS epidemic] and have become better after the opening of
clinics. [Now] people have at least one
point of care in areas where nothing happened before."
Dr. Cahn says activists at the conference
are likely to encourage the integration of reproductive health services with treatment for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases -- illnesses that further weaken immune systems infected with the
HIV virus. They say the effort would not only
strengthen national health care systems, but help meet the UN goal of ensuring
universal access to AIDS prevention and treatment by 2010.