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AIDS 2010 Opens with Focus on Human Rights of People with HIV

In keeping with the theme of "Rights Here, Rights Now," the XVIII International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) opened in Vienna with calls to end discrimination and human rights abuses against people living with and at risk for HIV/AIDS, especially vulnerable groups including men who have sex with men, sex workers, drug users, and women and girls. Activists and health experts agreed that it is essential for world leaders to keep their promises to increase funding for universal access to HIV prevention and antiretroviral treatment.


In Austria and other wealthy countries, HIV is a chronic manageable infection, "but in many others, people are turned away from clinics and denied treatment due to lack of resources, facing rationed care and agonizing choices about who is allowed to live and who will die," conference co-chair and Austrian AIDS Society president Brigitte Schmied said at an opening press conference and plenary. "AIDS has never been only about science, it has always been about social justice as well."

We are "nowhere near delivery" on the commitment by the G8 -- the world's wealthiest countries -- to adequately fund HIV treatment, made at their 2005 meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, added co-chair Julio Montaner, president of the International AIDS Society.

Five years later, approximately 5 million people in low- and middle-income countries are on antiretroviral therapy (ART), but this falls far short of the goal of universal access by 2010. At this year's meeting in Canada, the G8 leaders had little to say about AIDS.

"The G8 has committed to maternal and child health," Montaner said. "Tell them they won't get there without investment in HIV/AIDS."But the activists got little argument from scheduled speakers, who expressed agreement with their agenda, from increased prevention and treatment funding to recognition of sex workers' rights and ending the war on drug users.

Activists pressed a similar message during a march that took them through the Reed Messe Wien Congress Center and past booths of countries they claimed were not living up to their commitments to fund scale-up of treatment on a global scale. Carrying signs proclaiming "Broken Promises Kill" and chanting, "Obama lies, millions die!" (French president Nicolas Sarkozy was likewise accused), a few hundred ended with a die-in in the main hall before disrupting the opening plenary.

"We have heard excuses about the fiscal crisis, but we were way behind [in meeting funding commitments] before the crisis," Montaner said. World leaders "had absolutely no problem finding money on a moment's notice to bail out their corporate friends, the greedy Wall Street bankers, and yet when it comes to global health the purse is always empty."

Paula Akugizbwe of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for South Africa sounded the same theme, claiming the problem is not a global financial crisis, but rather a priorities crisis.

"The issue is not that HIV is over-funded, but that health is under-funded," she said of the ongoing debate over AIDS versus general health funding. "We can afford politicians' luxury vehicles, military expenditures, leaders' pay, and World Cup stadiums, but when it comes to health, we have to beg, borrow, and steal."

With the Vienna venue calling attention to HIV/AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia -- the fastest-growing epidemic and one largely tied to injection drugs use -- the official conference statement, the Vienna Declaration, calls for health-focused, science-based drug policies rather than the punitive approach that now prevails in many countries.

Notwithstanding some good news about significant drops in mother-to-child transmission thanks to scaled-up ART, and 25% decreases in incidence among young people in 15 countries, HIV continues to spread among other vulnerable populations, said Yves Souteyrand of the World Health Organization.

In addition to drug users, other groups facing discrimination and human rights abuses that fuel the epidemic include men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, prisoners, immigrants, and women and girls.

Human rights abuses "continue to blind our knowledge of the epidemic" and make it much more difficult to reach these people, Souteyrand continued. "Universal access to prevention and treatment cannot be achieved without universal access to human rights."

Montaner and others stressed that ART has now been firmly established as a strategy for prevention as well as treatment. Keeping new people from becoming infected -- and those who are infected from becoming seriously ill -- also makes fiscal sense. "The world now knows that treatment for prevention works for the patient, works for the people, and works for the pocket," said UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibe.

Treatment as prevention is part of UNAIDS recently announced "Treatment 2.0" strategy, which also aims to develop less toxic medications and simpler diagnostics, scale up testing and counseling, reduce the cost of treatment so more people can benefit from available resources, and involve communities members in managing treatment programs.

The AIDS 2010 opening plenary may be viewed on the Kaiser Family Foundation website at The site also includes Monday addresses by Bill Clinton and Bill Gates, and will feature live coverage of selected sessions throughout the week.



AIDS 2010. At Opening of XVIII International AIDS Conference, Scientific, Community and Political Leaders Applaud Recent Progress Toward Universal Access and Urge Continued Momentum to "Finish What We've Started." Press release. July 18, 2010.

AIDS Activist Die to Delay International AIDS Conference Opening Ceremony. Media advisory. July 18, 2010.