20 Aug 2006
The Fourteenth International AIDS conference ended in Toronto, Canada on the 18th of August 2006. The six-day conference that kicked off with hopeful signals from high profile figures like Bill Clinton and Bill Gates had an impressive attendance of about 24000 people comprising scientists, activists, policymakers, journalists, community caregivers and PLWHAs (people living with HIV/AIDS). During the opening ceremony, Bill Gates, whose Foundation recently donated $500 million to the Global Fund to Fight Tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS, stressed the need to put more efforts and resources towards the prevention of HIV infection. “We’ll never be able to deal with the numbers of people that would have to go on treatment if we don’t make a dramatic breakthrough in prevention”. He said.
There were hopes for early development of vaccines to fight Aids and there were prospects that microbicides (substances that can kill the Aids virus and thus prevent infection) formulated as ovules, suppositories or creams could soon be available for use within two years. Bill Gates and wife Melinda have devoted time and resources into this microbicide research and they are confident that the products will eventually give power to women to protect their lives.
Participants and other observers were however frustrated that despite all the mobilization over the years, the Aids statistics still present a grim picture. In 1990 there were 8million people living with HIV and by the end of 2005 they were 38.6million out of which 2.3million are children. In 2005 alone, there were approximately 4.1million new infections and Aids-related deaths in that year were 2.8million. More than 25million people have died of Aids since 1981. Sub Saharan Africa still tops the chart with 24.5million people living with HIV, while infection rate is spreading rapidly in Asia with the current number of infected people standing at 8.3million.
Conference co-chair Mark Wainberg, lashed out at the Canadian P.M Stephen Harper for being absent during the opening ceremony. “Mr Harper, you have made a mistake that puts you on the wrong side of history”. Stressing that Harper’s absence shows he does not regard “HIV/AIDS as a critical priority”, Wainberg added; “All of us here tonight disagree with you.” At the end of the conference the UN special envoy for Aids in Africa Stephen Lewis hit hard at the South African government and the rich nations. The South African government’s policy on the management HIV/AIDs is at variance with the conventional approaches that have been adopted by many countries. The South African health ministry seems to encourage an approach to aids management that Lewis described as “more worthy of a lunatic fringe than of a concerned and compassionate state”. The policy puts emphasis on what they believe to be ‘immune system boosters’ such as garlic, lemons, beetroots, olive oil and other nutritional supplements and vitamins instead of focusing primarily on antiretroviral medication. Using less than diplomatic language, the UN diplomat described the South African government as “obtuse, dilatory and negligent about rolling out treatment”. Adding; “The government has a lot to atone for. I am of the opinion that they can never achieve redemption”. Lewis also reserved some harsh words for the G8 group of rich nations that he accused of reneging on their promises made at Gleneagles in 2005.
In two year’s time, the International Aids Conference will move its usual large crowd to another jamboree in Mexico. The conference will certainly not differ much from that of this year. This was a gathering of 24000 people from 170 countries that reviewed 4500 abstracts in six days only to learn one new practical thing- that circumcision reduces HIV infection. The rest of the findings were mostly scientific in nature. May I ask the Conference organizers whether we really need such a large crowd to attend AIDS conferences?
Njei Moses Timah