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International AIDS Conference Opens in South Africa

The 5 day International AIDS Conference started in the Port City of Durban, South Africa Monday at the International Convention Center. Every year the International AIDS Conference has a dedicated theme, this year is "Access Equity Rights Now"

It is a call to action to work together and reach the people who still lack access to comprehensive treatment, prevention, care and support services.

According to the UN, "More than 60% of people living with HIV remain without antiretroviral therapy; women and girls, men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, young people, and people who use drugs and other marginalized groups remain under-prioritized in the response; investments in HIV prevention research appear to have flattened; and widespread violations of human rights including criminalization continue to undermine effective responses. This is the challenge facing experts gathered in South Africa."

South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who also chairs the South African National Aids Council is officiating on behalf of Pretoria. Ramaphosa officially opened the conference Monday evening.

In a press conference in the morning, Ramaphosa said Africa is still lagging behind.

“Of the 17 million people currently on treatment worldwide, nearly 10.3 million are in this region. The latest information from UNAIDS is that the number of people on treatment in eastern and southern Africa has more than doubled since 2010. AIDS-related deaths in the region have decreased by more than a third over the same period. Mother to child transmission of HIV has been dramatically reduced.”

Those attending include United Nations Secretary-General Mr Ban Ki Moon, SADC Heads of State and Government, singer Elton John and Britain's Prince Harry will host a session at the conference discussing the HIV epidemic among young people.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe from Mali (C) speaks at a press conference alongside President of the IAS, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi from France (L) and local CPC co-chair Brent Allan in Melbourne, July 20, 2014.
UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe from Mali (C) speaks at a press conference alongside President of the IAS, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi from France (L) and local CPC co-chair Brent Allan in Melbourne, July 20, 2014.

​The International AIDS Society or IAS which organizes the conference is the world's leading independent association of HIV professionals, with over 18,000 members from more than 196 countries working at all levels of the global response to AIDS.

The IAS members include researchers from all disciplines, clinicians, public health and community practitioners on the frontlines of the epidemic, as well as policy and programme planners. These members have descended on Durban to find ways of combating the pandemic that has claimed more than 30 million lives in 35 years.

The Zimbabwe delegation at the conference is headed by health minister Dr David Parirenyatwa who says the key message to the conference was prevention. He said for Harare to achieve its targets on ending Aids, there was need to “close the tap of new HIV infections.”

Zimbabweans attending include Daniel Molokele, Executive Director at AIDS Accountability International who says Harare can reap huge benefits from the conference.

Chairwoman Martha Tolana of the Zimbabwe Network for Positive Women concurs

Ending the AIDS pandemic by 2030 has been set as the goal by UN member nations. They've also pledged treatment for 30 million people living with HIV by 2020. The UN though has warned that efforts are lagging. Mr Ban told the conference today that the funding remains a stumbling block in achieving this goal.

There are some 36.7 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Of these, only 17 million are receiving treatment. By ending the epidemic by 2030, the world would avert 18 million new HIV infections and 11.2 million AIDS-related deaths between 2013 and 2030.

In April 2001, the African Union countries met in Abuja, Nigeria and pledged to set a target of allocating at least 15% of their annual budget to improve the health sector and urged donor countries to scale up support. Years later, only one African country reached this Abuja Declaration target. Molokela says this is a major blow to fighting the pandemic.

Chairwoman Martha Tolana of the Zimbabwe Network for Positive Women concurs

New infections globally fell six percent since 2010 -- from 2.2 million to 2.1 million, and AIDS-related deaths have almost halved from their peak, at two million, in 2005.

Infections are soaring in North Africa and the Middle East, which now has the fastest-growing epidemic.

In Russia, where reported HIV infections topped one million last year, government resistance to supporting programmes for gay men and drug users is exacerbating the crisis.

Molokela says sadly this is also happening in Zimbabwe where the government allegedly discriminates against gays.

Although Harare’s prevalence rate has dropped from an all-time high of over 30% to around 15%, Zimbabwe is still grappling with inadequate funding to curtail the disease. Zimbabwe has the fifth highest HIV prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa at 15%. 1.4 million People are living with HIV including 170,000 children, equating to 4% of the global total.

This is the second time that Durban has hosted the International AIDS Conference, having hosted the XIII International AIDS Conference in 2000. That conference was the first to be hosted in a developing country and analysts say it enormously helped to change the approach to global public health.

The International AIDS Conference was previously held in Vienna, Austria (2010), Washington, D.C., USA (2012), Melbourne, Australia 2014.

Report by Blessing Zulu
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