Jamra primary scholl for children affected by HIV/AIDS, drugs or poverty, Senegal (c) Nell Freeman/Alliance Participants in the Photovioce project, Ecuador © Marcela Nievas for the Alliance
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Science and human rights: we must bridge the gap to end AIDS


Harm reduction work at a mosque in Malaysia (c) the Alliance

As delegates from across the HIV response left the International AIDS Conference last week, there was a worrying division between those working to find the latest scientific advances and those defending the rights of people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS. Unless we can bridge this divide, we will never bring an end to AIDS.

Despite all the talk about new scientific advances at the conference, which rightly grab the headlines, right from the opening plenary we were reminded that drug users and sex workers continue to have little voice in such arenas, and many could not get visas to enter the United States.

Whilst it is heartening to hear from Hillary Clinton of the U.S. government’s commitment to developing a blueprint for an AIDS-free generation by World AIDS Day, on another plenary session conference delegates heard US activist and founder of the Black AIDS Institute, Phil Wilson talk about the stark reality of the HIV response in his own country, “Bottom line, in the richest nation on the planet, barely a quarter of the people with HIV are in fully effective treatment.”

Whilst the HIV response may look for leadership from international donors like the U.S. who still continue to provide the lion’s share of funding, it is clear that many US citizens living with HIV exist in a comparable universe to the marginalised communities that the Alliance supports in much poorer countries around the world.

Despite exciting new scientific advances the fact remains that the majority of people who need treatment are not receiving it, even in the world’s richest nation. With universal access still the main goal it poses huge questions about the application of some of these recent advances. With less than half of people living in low and middle incomes countries who need treatment actually receiving it, how long will it be before treatment as prevention – a relative luxury compared to treatment for treatments sake – will ever reach its full potential?

Human rights – the foundation of the HIV response

Hillary Clinton was the only political speaker on the main plenary programme.  Elsewhere, apart from South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, other state officials from countries most affected by HIV were poorly represented. Strong political engagement is key to ‘country ownership’ and developing effective, efficient and sustainable national AIDS responses.

But so is the full engagement of civil society, and the communities most at risk and people living with HIV.  Until we break down the apparently insurmountable barriers for key populations (MSM, people who use drugs and sex workers) to access services we cannot hope to capitalise on the new scientific advances in HIV treatment and biomedical prevention.

In an oral abstract session at the conference, Get a test, risk arrest, conference delegates heard the shocking reality that North America remains the region with the highest number of criminal prosecutions for HIV.  Christine Stegling, Alliance Senior Adviser on Human Rights said: “The International AIDS Conference showed clearly that despite exciting news of new biomedical advances, these will have limited impact whilst the law in many countries still works against the HIV response, not for it.”

“The end of AIDS will only be possible when the amount of attention given to eliminating human rights obstacles, including legal barriers to access for those carrying the greatest HIV burden is equal to that given to developing new biomedical interventions.  We hope the new U.S. blueprint will prioritise investment at both levels.”

Read more about how we profiled human rights at AIDS 2012.