AMSTERDAM — Advocates called for increased response to the AIDS epidemic worldwide, and some of the world’s more famous voices joined them here.
They warned that not reaching global funding targets could result in the loss of life-saving programs and ultimately would cost lives, and urged governments around the world to increase their spending on this crisis.
One of the more impassioned voices belonged to Maureen Milanga, associate director, International Policy and Advocacy at Health GAP, an international advocacy organization, who cited the statistic that 13 out of 16 donor countries cut their funding contributions from levels 3 years prior.
“Why is this happening? Donors are breaking their funding promises,” she said at a press conference at the International AIDS Conference. “Life-saving treatment is not reaching people in need.”
Milanga added that nearly one million people still die of AIDS-related causes every year. While the goal was no more than 769,000 deaths, there were 940,000 last year.
“This is a massive failure,” she said. “New infections are not falling fast enough. HIV preventive services are not being provided on an adequate scale and not reaching the people who need it the most.”
Milanga called on delegates at the conference from African countries of Tanzania, Malawi, and Zimbabwe to share the experiences from their countries. They discussed funding crises, including delays in time to viral load testing, lack of scaling up voluntary medical male circumcision, and community-based approaches that could target hard-to-reach populations, like men.
Milanga talked about how the DREAMS program, which had been highly effective at preventing HIV infections among girls and young women, is only operating in a handful of districts in Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
“It is the responsibility of political leaders, national governments, and the international community to make significant financial investments,” she said. “Flat funding is blocking life-saving treatment.”
Baroness Liz Barker, of the House of Lords in England, was also at the press conference to share her perspective as a representative from one of the so-called “donor countries.” She said that the last 30 years have been a “massive investment,” but that countries must continue to work with people who are on the front lines of the epidemic.
“All governments, particularly donor governments, have a responsibility [to help fund the response],” Barker said. “[The U.K.] takes our responsibility as a former colonial power very seriously.”
Celebrities Chime In
A few more famous faces from former colonial powers also attended this year’s conference to add their voices to the conversation. His Royal Highness The Duke of Sussex (better known to Americans as Prince Harry) engaged in a discussion with youth activists earlier in the week.
In addressing a plenary session of the conference, actress, activist, and native South African Charlize Theron, whose ancestors trace their roots to the Netherlands, said that the hallmarks of colonialism that were espoused 400 years ago were “deeply, unequivocally wrong. They believed the lie of white supremacy.”
She said that 400 years later “South Africa is still struggling to dismantle those racist systems founded on those beliefs. “The hallmarks of colonialism – dehumanization, discrimination, stereotypes, and stigma – are also the hallmarks of the HIV epidemic,” Theron said. “Their attitudes have fueled the epidemic from the start. We know now that the AIDS epidemic is linked to the second-class status of women and girls worldwide.”
Theron said that people like herself who have benefited from their privileged status must step up. “I hope we use our position of privilege to fight injustice” She suggested that the best way to continue the battle against HIV and injustice is to “listen to local voices and to support young people, by spreading opportunity, access, and the tools to live healthy lives.”
Recording artist Sir Elton John said at a press briefing that his organization has been focusing its attention currently on the expanding epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
“I have held concerts in Russia even before the end of the Soviet Union and I have developed great affections for the people of the region. This is one of the few regions in the world where the HIV/AIDS statistics are getting worse and worse and worse. Based on our experience, we know we must work with scientific and medical experts as well as with government officials,” he said.
John said that his Elton John AIDS Foundation is in negotiations with health agencies in Russia – despite that nation’s Draconian attitudes toward the marginalized communities that are often most affected by HIV/AIDS.
However, he also said that his foundation is engaging with the vulnerable populations. “We love them no matter who they are, who they love, where they live, or what they believe because the only way we can end AIDS is by ending it everywhere and for everyone.
Chris Beyrer, MD, immediate past president of the International AIDS Society, noted that the Elton John Foundation, among other projects, helped fund a special report that focused on the expanding AIDS epidemic is Eastern Europe and Central Asia. He noted that since its founding in 1992, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has raised $400 million to fund projects worldwide.
Perrie Susman contributed to this report.