Inclusion of youth and women essential to turning the tide against HIV, says UNICEF Deputy Executive Director
From 22 to 27 July, experts are gathering in Washington, D.C., for the International AIDS Society’s biennial conference on rolling back the HIV and AIDS epidemic. UNICEF has hosted a leadership forum stressing the need for innovation in eliminating new HIV infections in children. This story is part of a series illustrating UNICEF's efforts on behalf of children and women affected by HIV.
Washington, D.C., 26 July 2012 – ‘Turning the Tide Together’ is the theme of the XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) taking place in Washington, D.C., this week. In a plenary session on 25 July, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta and Senior Advisor on AIDS Scale-up Chewe Luo firmly established that children must be part of efforts to reverse the HIV and AIDS epidemic.
Their presentations come as the world looks ahead to the deadline set out in the UNAIDS 2011 ‘Global Plan towards the Elimination of New HIV Infections Among Children by 2015 and Keeping Their Mothers Alive’ and the High Level Meeting on AIDS in June 2011. It includes global agreements to virtually eliminate new infections in infants, and to reduce new infections among adolescents by half – both by 2015.
Still much to do
Dr. Luo spoke first, delivering an address on ‘Turning the Tide for Children and Youth’ to an audience of nearly 20,000. She opened by recalling that she gave a similar talk at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, in 2000. Since that time, she said, much has been accomplished in both funding and programmatic progress.
But, said Dr. Luo, “the decline in new HIV infections falls short of what we need to achieve to eliminate new HIV infections among children.” Eliminating new HIV infections among children also contributes to the overall goal of ending preventable child deaths, as was called for in the recently launched ‘Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed’ pledge, which was signed by hundreds of organizations and governments.
She praised the World Health Organization (WHO) for setting protocols for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT), and encouraged more consideration of Option B+ in particular. Option B+ is a promising approach being pioneered in Malawi that focuses on lifelong treatment for mothers, and also includes protection against sexual transmission to partners to protect the health not just of infants but also of mothers living with the virus and HIV-free partners.
While acknowledging the success of work to date on eliminating new infections in children, Dr. Luo stressed that adolescents and young people also must be included in the global HIV response. As the UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said earlier, “We invest so much in keeping children alive in the first decade of life. We must not lose them in the second.”
Putting girls front and center
Dr. Gupta closed the session with her presentation, ‘Turning the Tide for Women and Girls’. She focused on the important role adolescent girls and young women play in reversing the global epidemic and noted achievements to date, but with reservations.
“As we celebrate the successes of the past decade,” she said, “we must recognize how much remains to be done. Despite substantial progress on various fronts, adolescent girls continue to bear the brunt of the epidemic.”
“The statistics speak for themselves: of the 4.8 million young people living with HIV worldwide at the end of 2011, 3 million were girls,” Dr. Gupta continued. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the hardest-hit of all global regions, adolescent girls and young women aged 15–24 account for more than 70 per cent of all young people living with HIV.
“These adolescent girls and young women, our sisters and daughters, represent the unfinished agenda in the AIDS response,” she said, “and our greatest hope for turning the tide of the epidemic in adults and in children.”
Focus on justice
The plenary talks were a central component of UNICEF’s participation at the conference, part of a week filled with activities aimed at supporting the organization’s goal of achieving an AIDS-free generation.
Other key events included a leadership forum on ‘Innovation for the Elimination of New HIV Infections Among Children’, opened by UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, and a presentation of the ‘Shuga: Love, Sex, Money’ radio and TV drama series, which communicates HIV prevention messages to adolescents and young people.
But working towards a world free of AIDS is not enough, Dr. Gupta emphasized. She recalled growing up in India in a world still untouched by the epidemic, but in which women and the poor experienced vast inequalities and injustices. The progress made against HIV so far has come by fighting together for the principles of equity, justice and inclusiveness.
“We must not lose sight of those guiding principles now,” she said. “As we travel this last mile together, the world that we should all be calling for is one that is not only AIDS-free but also just – because we will not be content to have the one without the other.”