When Loyce Maturu was 10, she lost her mother and brother to AIDS and tuberculosis in the same week. Two years later, she was diagnosed with both illnesses.
The young Zimbabwean experienced harsh emotional and verbal abuse from a family member because of the stigma attached to her health status, and in 2010 she attempted suicide. But today, she is a thriving 24-year-old who is working to empower girls and adolescents who are HIV-positive.
“Now every day that I live, I am thankful that I am one of the 17 million people that mark the success of HIV treatment over the past years, and it shows that together we have the greatest strength of saving more lives,” she told the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday during a high-level meeting on ending HIV/AIDS by 2030.
HIV/AIDS has greatly affected young people. About 14 million children have been orphaned by the epidemic. Young people also have a high infection rate — about 2,000 new ones each day. This has led to an increase in AIDS-related deaths among the young. It is now the second-leading cause of death in adolescents globally.
“We need to equip them, we need to bring skills, we need to make sure sex education becomes a reality everywhere, so they can really be able to avoid risky behavior,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé.
He said it also was vital that young people be at the center of what he called a “prevention revolution.”
On the fast track
In the past 15 years, substantial progress has been made in the global fight against HIV/AIDS, and the U.N. is trying to consolidate that success to end the epidemic by 2030.
“We have halted and begun to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the meeting. “New HIV infections have declined by 35 percent since 2000. AIDS-related deaths have gone down by 43 percent since 2003.”
He said this was due in part to cheaper anti-retroviral drugs, new funding and leadership from those within the HIV/AIDS community and civil society.
Ban urged donors to meet the annual funding target of $26 billion, saying the next five years offered a unique opportunity to change the direction of the epidemic and end AIDS forever.
“If we do not act,” he warned, “there is a danger the epidemic will rebound in low- and middle-income countries.”
Currently, 36.7 million people are living with HIV/AIDS around the world. Each year, another 2.1 million people will become infected, and half that number will die. The U.N. says if the global response can be fast-tracked, millions of new infections can be avoided.
One area in which there has been welcome news is in reducing mother-to-child transmission.
Four countries — Armenia, Belarus, Cuba and Thailand — have eliminated transmission of the disease from pregnant mothers to their infants, and 80 more countries are getting close, with fewer than 50 babies born each year with HIV.
But the road ahead still has many hurdles. Infections are on the rise in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Many of those infections come from intravenous drug users, and Sidibé said UNAIDS is working with countries to encourage them to not treat intravenous drug users as criminals.
“Any time you are criminalizing, you are losing people. They are hiding, they are going underground and they are continuing to infect,” Sidibé said.
In eastern and southern Africa, the world’s most affected region, AIDS-related deaths are down by more than one-third since 2010. But in west and central Africa, more than half the 6.5 million people infected continue to go without treatment.
“While the number of people on lifesaving HIV treatment worldwide doubled over the last five years to nearly 17 million people, those living in west and central Africa are missing out and in desperate need of treatment,” said Dr. Cecilia Ferreyra of Doctors Without Borders.
Discrimination also continues to affect HIV-positive people. Thirty-five countries do not allow HIV-positive foreigners to enter or live in their states. Others find in their homeland it is harder to find and keep a job, and for others, social stigmas persist.
The U.N. General Assembly adopted a political declaration on accelerating the response to ending HIV/AIDS, setting out specific time-bound targets.
Several countries objected to language in the text, including references to sex education, birth control and men who have sex with men. Some civil society groups expressed disappointment, saying the text was not strong enough.