Don’t let the goal of an HIV-free generation slip away

Calls for an AIDS-free generation and zero new HIV infections are getting louder and louder every day.

The UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS (UNGASS) in 2011 made a declaration to double the number of people on ARV treatment to 15 million by 2015 and end mother-to-child transmission of HIV. A call was also made to eradicate AIDS by 2020.  
With this global clarion call, I am hopeful that Namibia would be among the first countries in the world to eliminate new HIV infections by 2020.
Namibia is among the 15 countries in the world that have achieved the target of at least 80 percent coverage of HIV-positive pregnant women in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme.
The global coverage of anti-retroviral drugs to prevent HIV transmission from mother-to-child exceeded 50 percent in 2009, according to UN’s HIV/AIDS Progress Report released recently.
The report quoted UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, applauding Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland for achieving at least 80 percent coverage of PMTCT services among HIV-positive pregnant women.
The world is beginning to reverse the spread of HIV, with investments in the HIV response paying off. More than six million people were accessing life-saving anti-retroviral treatment at the end of 2010, up from 5.2 million at the end of 2009.
In 33 countries, including 22 in sub-Saharan Africa, HIV incidences fell by at least 25 percent between 2001 and 2009.
Despite this progress, the gains are fragile, and bold decisions are needed to dramatically shape the future of AIDS response.
This means harnessing the energy of young people for an HIV prevention revolution, revitalising the push towards universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.
The never-ending global financial crisis has especially raised major concerns regarding the HIV-free generation dream.
Some major donors like the United States have announced major cuts in health sector funding, which is expected to have major negative impacts on gains made towards fighting HIV/AIDS.
For instance, during the UNGASS, the money issue was said to be the major issue to realising the 2015 and 2020 dreams.
At the moment, US$10 billion is spent each year, and UNAIDS says another US$6 billion will be required.
UN member states in 2011 agreed to increase AIDS-related spending to between US$22b and US$24b in low- and middle-income countries by 2015.
However, for Namibia and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, to achieve the 2020 goal of eliminating AIDS governments and NGOs must step up efforts to provide access to HIV prevention, treatment and social protection to their citizens.
Despite the looming money problem – these countries need to build on current success and achievements by ensuring that the poor does not pay the price in case some HIV programmes have to be sacrificed.
Countries, especially in sub-Sahara Africa – the worst affected by the pandemic, should heed advise by the UN Chief that “countries of the world will also need to work together to make HIV programmes more cost-effective and efficient, and to promote the health and human rights of women and girls”.
We should take a leaf from Cambodia, which is said to be on track to becoming one of the few countries in the world that have successfully reversed the HIV epidemic and may eliminate new infections by 2020.
The Southeast Asian nation has reduced its HIV prevalence rate from a 1998 peak of 1.7 percent in the 15-49 age group to 0.7 percent in 2012 across the whole population, the WHO said in a joint statement with the Cambodian health ministry.
Nearly 75 000 Cambodians are living with HIV, according to local health authorities’ reports.
But new infections have dropped from around 15 500 annually in the early 1990s to about 2 100 in 2009 and 1 000 in 2011, the statement said.
The decline was attributed largely to a government prevention drive focusing on sex workers, HIV positive mothers and improved access to anti-retroviral drugs for people living with the infection, it added.
The UN Progress Report on HIV/AIDS warns that the 2020 target could be missed without continued investment in HIV prevention and care for the sick.
This is a clear message to smaller economies like Namibia that depend on donor funding that there is a strong economic case for investing in combating the spread of HIV/AIDS.
The government should scale up its contribution towards tackling the pandemic. Otherwise, the well-intended goals of HIV free generation will remain a pipe dream.

May 2013
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