World AIDS Day has become an important and significant day in the world’s calendar. World AIDS Day this year has deeper meaning and relevance than usual; we mark thirty years of awareness of the HIV epidemic. In those thirty years, advances in medical knowledge leading to significant scientific breakthroughs have changed understanding of the epidemic and helped alter attitudes towards it. They have also changed the lives of countless men, women and children affected by the virus. HIV infection need no longer be a looming death sentence. Massive prevention programmes and increasingly effective treatment regimes mean millions have been spared the stigma and suffering, loss of opportunity and foreshortening of life that cut swathes through our populations in the early years of the epidemic.
These advances are the result of alliances formed to strengthen the political resolve of governments, mobilise citizen initiatives, to deepen the commitment of the international community and, just as importantly, sustained family support and community action. The AIDS crisis hits hardest at household level.
World AIDS Day provides an opportunity to refocus our attention and efforts on the need to press ahead, ensuring access to available technology and tools to combat HIV and intensifying efforts towards the eradication of this scourge.
‘Getting to Zero’, the theme for World AIDS Day 2011, sets an ambitious, but not an impossible goal. Zero new infections, zero AIDS related deaths, and zero discrimination, is the global vision for the future AIDS response. The 2010 UNAIDS Global Report on HIV, indicating that the epidemic is halting and being reversed in many regions of the world, makes elimination seem a possibility. With renewed global commitment we can make progress towards achieving the 2015 Millennium Development Goal targets on HIV/AIDS.
In June this year, at the UN High Level Meeting, Commonwealth member countries, and we at the Commonwealth Secretariat, reaffirmed our commitment to working towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment and care. Our commitment includes upholding the rights of all Commonwealth citizens to live free from prejudice or discrimination.
Commonwealth countries bear a disproportionate part of the HIV burden. Two of our regions, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, suffer from the highest rates of prevalence – they are also the only regions where women and girls outnumber men and boys among people living with HIV. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the epicentre of the epidemic, 15 of the 22 most affected countries belong to the Commonwealth. In the Asian region, the epidemic remains largely concentrated among high-risk groups that are often marginalised in society.
Encouraging achievements have been made in reducing new HIV infections. Data from the 2010 UNAIDS Global Report shows that over the past decade incidence of HIV has decreased by 25 per cent or more in 33 countries - 12 of them Commonwealth members. However 7,000 people worldwide become infected with HIV every day, 1,000 of them children.
It is a tragic injustice that children are still being born with HIV when the means are available to prevent this. Eliminating new infections in children is now considered a realistic goal. The key to achieving it is ensuring that pregnant women receive the skilled care they require and treatment to not only prevent mother to child transmission, but also to keep them alive, enabling them to watch their children grow.
Young people are powerful agents of change and effective participants in HIV prevention programmes. Yet only one in three young people worldwide have sufficiently comprehensive knowledge of HIV to protect themselves. Our Commonwealth Youth Ambassadors for Positive Living programme aims to empower young people to adopt healthy lifestyles through peer education. By positively reinforcing the visibility of young citizens with HIV the programme combats prejudice and extends opportunity.
Despite the fact that the number of deaths resulting from HIV infection has declined, it is still responsible for the death of 5,000 people every day. Over the past ten years the number of people receiving antiretroviral drug therapy has risen from only 200,000 people worldwide in 2001, to 6 million people in middle and low income countries alone by the end of 2010. But over half of those in need of treatment are still not receiving it.
The brunt of caring for the increasing number of people living with HIV is borne by families and loved ones. More often than not, the burden of care falls upon women and girls. They often have to cope in isolation, without support or financial means. Their needs and concerns should be prominent in our thinking when formulating national and international policies to ameliorate the impact of HIV.
A commitment to protecting the dignity of those infected and affected by HIV is fundamental to improving access to treatment and care for all. Similarly, the recent global political declaration on HIV recognises that ‘Getting to Zero’ will only be achieved if fundamental human rights and freedoms are upheld.
Our Commonwealth approach is to see our work on HIV through the lens of our work on human rights and gender as well as through that of our work on health and social welfare. We join with our global partners in the battle towards zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths, and zero discrimination.