AIDS 2014 launch delivers tears and joy
It was an emotional launch to the 20th international AIDS Conference as speaker after speaker paid tribute to the six delegates who lost their lives aboard Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.
After a very cheeky welcome to country, the mood at the AIDS 2014 opening ceremony shifted when the Dutch ambassador for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and HIV/AIDS, Lambert Grijns, read a letter of condolence to friends and family members of those onboard MH17. Grijns spoke with sadness of the loss to the community of some of its leading lights in the word of HIV medicine and rights.
Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, AIDS 2014 International Chair, President of the International AIDS Society (IAS) and Director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris took to the stage with Australian Professor Sharon Lewin from Melbourne’s Burnet Centre and led the audience in a one-minute silence in remembrance of their fallen colleagues.
The pair was joined on stage by former, present and future Presidents of the International AIDS Society along with representatives from those organisations who lost colleagues, the World Health Organization, AIDS Fonds, Stop AIDS Now, The Female Health Company, the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development and members of the Dutch HIV research community.
Then Barre-Sionoussi spoke of the advances in treatment that have changed the face of the illness, taking it from a death sentence to a life sentence.
“The tremendous scale-up of HIV programmes has, for so many people transformed HIV from a death sentence into a chronically manageable disease.
“One-third of people living with HIV, who need treatment now have access to it,” she said. "Nevertheless, these remarkable achievements are still not enough, 22 million people still do not have access to treatment. The official AIDS 2014 theme reminds us that we need to step up the pace and redouble our efforts. Too many countries are still struggling to address their HIV epidemic with their most vulnerable people consistently being left behind”.
It was a recurring theme - each speaker in his or her own way re-iterated the need for the community to come together as a whole in order that no-one be left behind. They called for decriminalisation and education programs that spoke to the young and the need for HIV positive people to be driving the conversations on treatment and prevention.
Lewin, local co-chair of AIDS 2014, Head of the Department of Infectious Diseases, Alfred Hospital and Monash University and co-head of the Centre for Biomedical Research at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne said there was much to admire in Australia's response to HIV: “Its bipartisan political approach, its inclusion of key affected communities and the capacity building in science and research”. But Lewin stressed the need to assist our neighbours in the epidemic and to refocus our efforts on those key groups who so often are forgotten.
"It is a key objective of the 20th International AIDS Conference to shine a light on those men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people and people who use drugs who do not have the same access to treatment, care and prevention as their western colleagues may do,” Lewin said.
Indonesian speaker Ayu Oktariani, led a procession of people living with HIV from South East Asia and the Pacific onto the stage. Dressed in traditional garb the women watched on as Oktariani delivered perhaps the highlight of the evening as she spoke from the heart on her concerns as a young women living with HIV. “We need people living with HIV in the response,” she shouted – it was a battle cry that was met with cheers from the crowd.
UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé continued the call to action as he expressed his 90 90 90 theory. In which we need 90 percent of the people with HIV to be tested an on treatment if we are to achieve the goal of ending HIV by 2030.
Sidibé said that efforts to increase access to antiretroviral therapy are working. In 2013, an additional 2.3 million people gained access to the life-saving medicines. This brings the global number of people accessing ART to nearly 13 million by the end of 2013. Based on recent scale-up, UNAIDS estimates that as of July 2014 as many as 14 million people were accessing ART.
“If we accelerate a scale-up of all HIV services by 2020, we will be on track to end the epidemic by 2030,” said Mr Sidibé. “If not, we risk significantly increasing the time it would take, adding a decade, if not more.”
The AIDS 2014 Melbourne Declaration was also referred to by the speakers, reaffirmed the importance of non-discrimination for an effective response to HIV and, more in general, to public health programmes.
Former Justice Micheal Kirby echoed the refrain saying we cannot be silent and the time had come to end the laws that discriminate, stigmatise, criminalise and harm those living with HIV.
AIDS 2014 runs until Friday, 25 July at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.
Image; Ayu Oktariani