MONTREAL/GENEVA — Global AIDS leaders have joined forces in issuing a strong warning that derailing of progress to end AIDS is putting millions of people in danger. They came together to launch UNAIDS Global AIDS Update 2022, ahead of the opening of the 24th International AIDS Conference currently taking place in Montreal, 29 July to 2 August.
“The data we are sharing brings painful but vital news,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “The latest findings reveal that the response to the AIDS pandemic has been derailed by global crises, from the colliding pandemics of HIV and COVID, to the war in Ukraine and the resulting global economic crisis. Progress has been stalled, inequalities have widened, resources have shrunk, and millions of lives are now at risk.”
Her concerns were echoed by Dr Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, who stated that the new data are a “wakeup call” and a reminder that the “global plague of HIV continues to rage.”
“There has, without a doubt, been backsliding in the HIV response amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Fauci. “Testing and hence HIV diagnoses decreased in many countries including in my own country, harm reduction services to people who use drugs and other vulnerable people have been widely disrupted. Reduced access to TB diagnoses and treatment resulted in an increase in TB deaths among people living with HIV from 2019 to 2020. What UNAIDS new report calls “faltering progress” means that 1.5 million people were infected with HIV last year, tragically three times the global target that we had hoped for. As the global HIV community meets, the conference theme of re-engage and follow the science could not be a better fit. I am sure that I speak for all my US government colleagues when I say that we remain fully committed to the kinds of engagement needed to get us on a course to reach our goal of a world where HIV infections are uncommon and HIV deaths rare.”
Keren Dunaway from the International Community of Women Living with HIV set out her struggles as a young Latin American woman who was born with HIV, and those of other women living with HIV in her network. She shared the story of a young pregnant woman from Nicaragua who, when she was diagnosed with HIV, was blamed for having HIV by medical staff who even asked her how many men she had been with, and said her baby was already HIV positive without any prior testing.
“The findings in the UNAIDS report and the data we have uncovered are much, much more than numbers, they are the lived realities of young women living with HIV. Young women and key populations continue to confront political agendas that seek to turn the clock back on our fundamental human rights including our right to bodily autonomy,” said Ms Dunaway. “These regressive efforts place younger women in increasingly precarious situations. When women are deprived of our core rights to have a say about our bodies and our rights to sexual and reproductive healthcare, we will all pay the high price in terms of prevention of new infections, and progress towards all goals of the HIV response.”
Stating that thousands of younger women, like herself, are mobilizing and organizing to push back against regressive attitudes and policies and confront the damages inflicted by the pandemic, but also warning that they cannot do it alone. “As young women fighting for our futures, we call on all of you to step up and ensure the HIV response urgently recognizes the dangers that younger women and key populations face – always – but more acutely after the COVID pandemic,” she said.
Ambassador Dr John Nkengasong, United States Global AIDS Coordinator and Special Representative for Health Diplomacy, backed the call for transformative action saying, “the HIV response and struggle is at a crossroads. We are seeing remarkable progress in some regions, notably in southern and eastern Africa, but, in some areas of some countries, increases. The timing of this report couldn’t have been more appropriate to remind us that the AIDS pandemic – and I use the word pandemic purposefully – is not a pandemic of yesterday, it is a pandemic of today. We cannot wait to fight the AIDS pandemic until the COVID pandemic is over. It has to be a question of fighting them together. It’s time not only to know your gaps but to close those gaps.”
He said that PEPFAR looked forward to working with UNAIDS on rights; on addressing the structural determinants of HIV; on issues of stigma and discrimination of key populations; and on turning off the tap to stop new HIV infections, stating the staggering figure of 4000 new HIV infections every day in 2021.
The host of AIDS2022 and President of the International AIDS Society Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman stressed that the world cannot afford to lose more ground in the global response to HIV. “70% of new HIV infections in 2021 occurred among key populations,” she said. “This illustrates that the most marginalized are also the hardest hit. We urgently need to make resources available, close research gaps, and eliminate the stigma that still pervades thinking. Most crucially, we must ensure that scientists, policymakers and activists come together to achieve progress. It’s time to re-engage and follow the science.”
Andriy Klepikov, Executive Director of the Alliance for Public Health in Ukraine emphasised that, “this is the first time UNAIDS has released a global AIDS report with such an alarming title – In Danger. In danger means that we need to act boldly, immediately and with a solid response. Current crises are pushing back the AIDS response. In order to get on track, we need more resources. And the report shows a fundamental mismatch. When new HIV cases are going up…funding is going down. We need to address this, and we need to fully fund the Global Fund. The success of the AIDS response over the next few years will depend on how successful the Global Fund replenishment will be. Will we raise 18 billion dollars to save 20 million lives or not?”
He added that key factors for a successful response to HIV were supporting human rights, and gender equality. He stressed that it was impossible to support people who use drugs when they are criminalized and put in prison rather than being offered treatment. He warned that much depends not only on funding, but on policy change saying that it was “critical to put science and evidence over ideology and prejudice.”
Champion of women and girls, Ms Anita Vandenbeld MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development (Canada) said, “As UNAIDS new Global AIDS Update 2022 shows, an emphasis on women and girls, on intersectionality, on equality and on the most vulnerable is more important than ever to stopping the spread of HIV. I find it particularly shocking and unacceptable that adolescent girls and young women make up 82% of people newly infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. This is an area where we need to double down and do more. The global AIDS response is under threat and that is something that we as political leaders need to respond to. Canada remains firmly committed to ending AIDS using our feminist international assistance policy to guide us.”