Dr. Elly Katabira, head of the International AIDS Society (IAS), says despite recent successes against the epidemic, much remains to be done.
Wednesday is World AIDS Day. The theme is “Universal Access and Human Rights.” It’s estimated there are 33 million people living with HIV around the world - most in sub-Saharan Africa.
Katabira took over the reins of the IAS in July and became its first African president. He had been professor of medicine at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.
Don’t take success for granted
On World AIDS Day, he says, “I think the message I would like everybody to have…is that, yes, the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) has announced some successes in reduction in numbers, but we are far, far from where we need to be comfortable.”
He says much more needs to be done, including promoting prevention, care and universal access to antiretroviral treatment” in areas where “the epidemic is still rampant.”
Katabira says it’s important “to keep other people aware of what is going on, so that they can play their part until we can get over this epidemic,” he says.
“Particularly, I’m concerned that some people are beginning to take it light(ly). For example, thinking that since drugs are available, therefore the disease is treatable. This shouldn’t be the case. And also I know, particularly in countries where the epidemic is a major issue, the contribution for funding for access to care is not as what we would want it to be,” he says.
Tight economic times
Since the global economic crisis, many say donor funding has “flat-lined.”
“Still,” Katabira says, “the problem is a big one. The need for more funding for HIV care is still crucial. For example, if I look at the big countries like the G8 and the G20…it is in their own interest, as well as in our interest, the beneficiaries, that more funds are put on the table to ensure that we can deliver (on) the promises we’ve made over the years.”
However, he says it’s not just the donors who should do more, despite the economic slowdown. The beneficiary countries also must to more.
“We, ourselves, need to invest more in the care of our people. I strongly believe that if we do so, it will also encourage the others to give us more, particularly at this crucial moment when finances are tight,” he says.
As a result of the poor economy, other priorities, he says, may replace HIV/AIDS.
“Global warming has come up and people think it is more relevant. Other people believe that AIDS has received already enough money and therefore they don’t need any more. We need to change that and keep reminding them that, yes, the battle is not yet over,” he says.
Many still need treatment.
The recent UNAIDS report says more than five-million people are now receiving antiretroviral treatment in developing countries. “But don’t forget,” Katabira says, “ten million still need the treatment. So we are far away from what is ideal.”
He warns if treatment is not expanded, “then we are going back to square one where we started off with fewer people on treatment and more deaths, which nobody wants to happen again.”
Hopes for 2011
“I hope first of all for 2011that there will be more commitment for accelerated access to HIV care,” he says, “And secondly, of course, changes in the legislation across the countries where it is still illegal to address issues like homosexuality and drug use. So that it opens the way for these people to (be given)…equal access to interventions, which are available to others today.”
The International AIDS Conference, the world’s largest, will be held in Washington, D.C. in mid 2012. It’s been many years since the U.S. hosted the event. Katabira and the IAS will play a major role in organizing the conference. He expects the 19th International AIDS conference to be different from previous meetings.
“To start with, when we got Washington, D.C. in 2012, we would have had 22 years without being in the U.S. as a result of course of the restrictions on people traveling to the U.S. who are HIV infected, which was lifted,” he says.
The travel ban was officially lifted in January 2010. The process to remove the ban had started in 2008 under the Bush administration and finalized by President Obama. It had been imposed in 1987, in the early years of the epidemic, amid misunderstanding about the disease.
“More importantly,” he says, “(the) U.S. has made a lot of contributions, not only through the current PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), but also in the support of training and research across the world. It should be an opportunity for them to show what they have done for the rest of the world.”
He adds, “This time it’s going to be in their own backyard. So there should be an opportunity to…demonstrate these collaborations and benefits, which have come out as a result.”