This Sunday, the 2010 International AIDS conference in Vienna will open its doors to an estimated 25,000 delegates from 100 different countries. It’s the largest turnout since the 2006 conference in Toronto. Yet, gone are the fanfare and the celebrities, leaving insiders wondering whether AIDS has fallen out of fashion.
To combat these growing sentiments, conference organizers have adopted the slogan Rights Here, Rights Now. The slogan emphasizes human rights themes such as protecting the rights of marginalized populations – homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and sex workers – and the need for universal access to HIV treatment. The slogan also suggests organizers want the return of the AIDS activist.
The return of the AIDS activist
If there ever was time when AIDS activism was needed, it’s now. Of the 14 million people who need treatment, slightly fewer than 4 million have access to the drugs. Instead of the public outcry found in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the perception is that AIDS is no longer an urgent problem. So blasé and pervasive is this attitude that on Monday, Kevin Moody from the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+) will moderate a symposium entitled ‘Is AIDS activism dead?’
No one is immune from the sentiments of AIDS fatigue. Even Dr. Peter Piot, the former head of UNAIDS, has been recently quoted in the New York Times as saying “I’m afraid we’re at a tipping point in the wrong direction’. And he too, will be leading a session on Sunday afternoon, hoping to turn the tide around. His session is called Is this the end of AIDS diplomacy?
The fact that it’s just before the opening conference ceremonies is cause for concern. People are definitely worried that the deadline set for December 2010 by world leaders to follow through on their commitment to expanding universal HIV treatment will not be met.
So what is the cost of controlling the HIV epidemic?
Michel Sidibe, the current head of UNAIDS, has been quoted as saying that about 27 billion US dollars is needed, but that donors only fund 10 billion US dollars. Currently, the US is the biggest funder of AIDS treatment.
Cash-strapped after the global recession, the US is attempting to cut costs by switching to funding cheaper and curable childhood disease. If other donors follow suit, it will be disastrous for expanding broad access to treatment.
The cost of curing childhood diseases such as measles, malaria, tetanus is between 1-10 US dollars. Since AIDS has no cure, the cost of treating an infected person is for life. In Uganda, that's estimated to be 11,500 dollars. So for every AIDS person treated, you could save least 1500 children from preventable disease, making the switch to treating childhood illness a downright bargain.
The problem with that sort of rationalisation is that you could be saving a child’s life only to see them killed by an AIDS-related disease later on in life. So this sort of thinking is not only short-sighted, but may even be costlier in the long-run.
The bigger question is here is whether AIDS activism and political commitment to stopping AIDS can make a comeback, rather than AIDS itself.