The 21st International AIDS Conference focused on one vitally important question: Will we do our respective parts to Access Equity Rights Now, leaving no one behind as we take the bold steps necessary to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030?

By Rebecca Waugh/IMA World Health

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he week of July 18-22, 15,180 people from around the globe gathered in Durban, South Africa, for the 21st International AIDS Conference. Scientists, activists, policymakers, NGOs, donors. Health professionals, educators, service providers, community organizers. Religious leaders, U.N. organizations, pharmaceutical companies, sex workers, ministers, diplomats. Prince Harry, Bill Gates, Elton John and (by video) Archbishop Desmond Tutu. HIV-positive, HIV-negative. A vibrant – sometimes boisterous – diversity of cultures, sexualities, and perspectives coming together to focus on one vitally important question: Will we do our respective parts to Access Equity Rights Now, leaving no one behind as we take the bold steps necessary to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030?

IMA was there as a technical NGO, committed to working within national and international plans and frameworks, in order to make the best use of resources and partnerships for maximum impact. As we help to build the capacity of national health systems in some countries that still face enormous challenges in taming the AIDS epidemic, we bring technical expertise grounded in evidence around epidemiological best practices.

IMA was there as a faith-based organization, whose theological underpinnings are unambiguous. Along with all the major world faiths, affirming that there is one human family, where every individual is equally treasured by God and all share in the privilege and responsibility of caring for each other and all creation. And honoring the teaching and example of Jesus, who – time and time again – actively sought out and offered protection, healing, restoration, inclusion even to, and especially to, the most marginalized people he encountered.

What did we hear?

• We heard recollections from the 13th International AIDS Conference held in Durban in 2000, where Nelson Mandela and a young HIV-positive boy, Nkosi Johnson, challenged the 12,000 delegates to “break the silence” around HIV, end the stigma and work together to curb the epidemic. Returning now to Durban in 2016, we celebrate breakthroughs that were inconceivable at the time. Millions of HIV-positive individuals are on antiretroviral therapy that will allow them to lead long, healthy lives; AIDS-related deaths and mother-to-child transmission have plummeted as a result. Technologies under development will make diagnostics and treatment even simpler, more accessible and more effective.

• We also heard warnings. Stigma and discrimination are still potent foes that inhibit people from accessing prevention tools, testing and treatment when needed. The epidemic is still raging among the most vulnerable groups, key populations such as men who have sex with men, injecting drug users, transgender women and sex workers. Incidence is rising among youth and adolescents, especially girls, who face additional risks socially, culturally and physiologically – especially where gender-based violence is prevalent. Men too often fail to be tested and treated in time. Though millions are on treatment, millions more should be. And with all the important and valid investment and energy on rolling out universal treatment, prevention efforts have lost some steam.

• We are at a critical juncture, where the tide can go either way. The world cannot afford to become AIDS-weary. On current course, new infections and AIDS-related deaths will rise; HIV will become a larger and larger burden on global health resources, as people continue to become infected and require life-long treatment. With a major push now, however – with rights-based approaches that ensuring equitable access across population groups – we can alter the trajectory and end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

What did we contribute?

IMA spoke up as both a technical and faith-based organization in support of these pivotal strategies by convening two “talk shows” on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Faith Networking Zone of the conference Global Village.

• We said, “Yes, reaching key populations is imperative, and faith-based groups have a vital role to play,” as representatives from IMA (Rebecca Waugh), the World Council of Churches Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy (Bishop Godson Lawson, Methodist Church/Togo), Soins Infirmiers et Développement Communautaire & Vivre Positif (Rita Wahab), and FHI360 (Matthew Avery) explored related challenges and opportunities in dialogue with other conference participants.

• And we said, “Yes, reaching 90-90-90 goals among adolescents and youth is imperative, and faith-based groups have a vital role to play” with representatives from IMA (Theresa Nyamupachitu), the National Organization of Peer Educators, Kenya (James Karongo), Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (Dr. Natella Rakhmanina), and John Snow, Inc. (Andrew Fullem) sharing perspectives and strategies to achieve these goals.

What happens now?

That is up to all of us.
IMA is ready to do our part.