Interview with Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS

Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director. Photo: UNAIDS

23 July 2012 – More than 20,000 delegates from around the world have gathered in Washington, D.C., for the XIX International AIDS Conference, which focuses on mobilizing governments and communities to achieve the vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.

Amongst those attending on behalf of the United Nations is Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), which advocates for coordinated international action against the disease.

Prior to the start of the Conference, the UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Sidibé about the week-long meeting and the importance of it taking place in the US capital, as well as for an update on the global fight against HIV/AIDS.

UN News Centre: What is the aim of the 19th International Conference on AIDS?

Michel Sidibé: I think a new era has just started. For a long time, we didn’t have any other choice than managing an emergency situation. But the Conference marks the start of what I would call the beginning of the end of the epidemic, since we have the science and we know tangible results can be achieved by the countries themselves, thanks to national ownership strategies.

UN News Centre: What is the significance of the Conference taking place in the United States, for the first time in more than 20 years?

Michel S... the Conference marks the start of what I would call the beginning of the end of the epidemic, since we have the science and we know tangible results can be achieved by the countries themselves, thanks to national ownership strategies.idibé: For me, it is the victory of law, of human rights, because after a long ban, people living with HIV/AIDS are now allowed to travel to the US. The lifting of that law by the Obama Administration is a strong sign that it is possible to work together when human rights are respected.

UN News Centre: A new UNAIDS report was published recently. What are its main conclusions?

Michel Sidibé: The report documents the emergence of a new development paradigm, which relies on the idea of shared responsibilities and a constant effort of ownership. Between 2006 and 2011, 81 countries have increased their investments against the pandemic by at least 50 per cent, including 33 African countries that bumped them to 55 per cent. During the same period, Sub-Saharan Africa countries have increased by 97 per cent their public expenditures, and that figure does not even include South Africa which, by itself, has invested $2 billion against HIV/AIDS, while only a few years ago, we couldn’t get this country onboard.

UN News Centre: More than a year after its launch, what is the status of implementation of the Global Plan Towards the Elimination of New HIV Infections among Children by 2015 and Keeping Their Mothers Alive: 2011-2015?

Mr. Sidibé greets US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a plenary session during the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. Photo: UNAIDS

Michel Sidibé: Mother-to-child transmission is an easily reachable goal. That is why UNAIDS has been mobilizing the 22 countries which make up for 95 per cent of that type of infection. The report observes that in less than two years, it has been possible to reduce it by 20 per cent in 15 of the most affected countries. As a whole, mother-to-child transmission occurrences have been lowered by more than 100,000. By being proactive and united, we can eradicate that type of infection.

UN News Centre: While the fight against the pandemic has progressed significantly over the past few years, what is the status of efforts against tuberculosis?

Michel Sidibé: As UNAIDS’ Executive Director, I have tried to make sure that AIDS wouldn’t be approached as an isolated disease anymore – linking it instead to tuberculosis, and maternal and child health. Our goal is to reduce by 50 per cent mortality caused by tuberculosis. The problem we have is that, the very strong social movement behind the fight against HIV/AIDS doesn’t exist for tuberculosis. That is why we try to bridge that gap and increase public awareness in order to decrease mortality caused by coinfection, which makes up for a quarter of deaths by AIDS.

A public service announcement on UNAIDS' latest report "Together We Will End AIDS."

UN News Centre: What is UNAIDS’ stance on the antiretroviral drug Truvada, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for usage in the US?

Michel Sidibé: I think Truvada is an extraordinary drug, one of the very best available. It will pave the way for more adequate treatments with fewer side effects for patients. Its use must be selective though, since it cannot be made available to anybody, at anytime. We need to keep promoting the use of condoms, which still are a very important tool in primary prophylaxis.

UN News Centre: Since taking up your post as the head of UNAIDS in 2009, what impact has been made in global efforts to halt the discrimination against and stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS?

Michel Sidibé: There is a debate, which is the most important thing. Last week, in New York, UNAIDS and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) launched a joint report, which blows the whistle on the prejudicial impact that restrictive laws have on human rights and the response to the pandemic.

Mr. Sidibé and UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador and performing artist Annie Lennox take part in the unveiling of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C. The Quilt carries the names of 94,000 people who have lost their lives to AIDS. Photo: UNAIDS/C. Kleponis

The report even shows that adverse legislations increase the risks of infection by HIV/AIDS. Today, a dialogue – previously unthinkable – is possible, about populations at risk, like gays, sex workers and drug users, often marginalized and excluded. Even in countries which used to be difficult to engage with about these topics, the door is opening and access is allowed to treatments for these groups. This is indispensable to curb the pandemic.

Discrimination still is the biggest battlefield and that is the reason why I’ve been pushing for the idea of ‘zero discrimination.’ Discrimination is our decision. We can always reform laws restraining or criminalizing access to services and treatments, as evidenced by the examples of United States and China, which has also ended travel bans for people living with HIV/AIDS.

UN News Centre: How close is the world to being rid of HIV/AIDS?

Michel Sidibé: Current antiretroviral therapies extend patients’ longevity and drastically reduce the transmission of the virus – but we must continue to mobilize the international community to find a vaccine or a cure, which are still missing from our armoury to end the pandemic.