HEADQUARTERS PRESS BRIEFING BY UNAIDS DIRECTOR

21 June 2001

HEADQUARTERS PRESS BRIEFING BY UNAIDS DIRECTOR

21/06/2001
Press Briefing

HEADQUARTERS PRESS BRIEFING BY UNAIDS DIRECTOR

One of the most astounding discoveries in the ongoing global struggle against AIDS had been the revelation that vigorous and creative leadership could elicit the new reserves of compassion and political will needed to halt the devastation of the virus, the Executive-Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said this morning. 

Dr. Peter Piot, launching the agency’s report, “Together We Can”, in advance of the General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS, told correspondents that leadership, particularly at the grass-roots level, had emerged as the one driving force that could really make a difference.  The report highlights advances in the response to the epidemic and gives concrete examples of successes achieved over the last 20 years, singling out leadership as one of the critical factors in mobilizing action and resources to fight the disease.  He added that the report also included a map detailing the sobering realities of the epidemic.

In the report’s introduction, Dr. Piot notes that responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic had shown humanity at both its best and worst.  Denial, blind panic and victim-blaming had been emblematic of some of the worst responses.  But gradually, through the successes that hinged on perseverance and vision -- from high-powered political and religious leaders to community activists, students and village leaders -- courage and ingenuity had come to the fore.  Such a collective humanitarian effort showed that the world now knew what it would take to turn the epidemic around.

Dr. Piot said that the upcoming special session, opening Monday and running through Wednesday 27 June, would be truly historic, particularly as it marked the first time political leaders from across the world would gather to rally around a health issue.  Indeed it was a recognition that AIDS could no longer be considered a northern medical curiosity, but was a truly compelling issue of a global nature with implications for security and social and economic development.  He added that the outcome of the session was envisioned as an instrument of accountability for international intergovernmental organizations that would present time-bound targets for collective achievement.

Several correspondents asked about the status of negotiations on the outcome declaration.  They noted that there appeared to be broad disagreement on issues such as religion, condom distribution, homosexuality and drug abusers, among others things.  “Well, at UNAIDS we deal with the facts,” Dr. Piot said “and if any group is excluded for AIDS initiatives, an effective response can never be built.”  It would not do to attempt to mount a campaign to halt HIV infections without addressing the issue of condom use or those most affected by the disease.  “The range of options for us includes abstinence, fidelity and condom use,” he continued.  “That’s our reality and the reality that we express to the Assembly.”

He went on to highlight several of the agency’s initiatives in cooperation with Christian, Catholic, Muslim or other religious leaders and organizations. UNAIDS was in a constant dialogue with religious entities and non-governmental organizations.  “It is absolutely crucial that we all work together towards a common goal,” he said. 

Dr. Piot was joined at the press conference by Elhadj Sy, Head of the UNAIDS Liaison Office in New York.  Mr. Sy said that over the last few months, UNAIDS had been facilitating the preparatory process for the special session at the country and regional levels.  The process had been conducive for partnership-building as well as the promotion of leadership initiatives at all levels.  The Agency planned to continue its efforts in that regard, in order to build on the momentum of the special session to support world leaders in their efforts aimed at prevention, care and other aspects of the fight against HIV/AIDS.  

Some correspondents noted that there also seemed to be broad disagreement on whether the special session should or would focus more on prevention or more on care and treatment.  How was that issue affecting the negotiations on the outcome document?  Dr. Piot acknowledged that the debate had been an interesting issue that had emerged during the run-up to the session.  However, for UNAIDS, the notion that either prevention or care and treatment should be highlighted over the other, presented a false dichotomy.  He reiterated his belief that the two were intrinsically linked, adding that the sections of the outcome document on those issues had already been agreed on.

The session would mark the first international political recognition that both prevention and care were needed to successfully combat the disease, he continued.  He hoped that the special session would increase global awareness of all aspects of the disease, particularly in regions such as Asia and Eastern Europe, where there was still a chance to prevent widespread infection rates.

After introducing the panel, Anne Winter, UNAIDS Manager, Communication and Public Information, drew correspondents’ attention to an article in Science magazine, available on the Web today after 2 p.m., which detailed the amount of resources needed to respond to the epidemic.  She also reminded journalists that during the special session, Dr. Piot, along with the heads of UNAIDS partner agencies, would hold a press conference each day at 1 p.m. in Conference Room 2.

Dr. Piot said that while searching for a key theme to guide the preparations for the special session, UNAIDS had discovered that leadership, more than other critical concerns such as prevention, access to drugs, or bio-medical research, was fundamental to effective action against the virus.  Moreover, bold leadership initiatives at local and community levels had been responsible for some of the most notable successes in efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

He said that the report was highlighted by a list of “leadership commitments” –- from ensuring an extraordinary response to the epidemic to the protection of children and others most vulnerable to the disease.  It also emphasized the intrinsic link between prevention and care.  Indeed, that particular issue was not a matter of debate for UNAIDS, he added.

Dr. Piot then gave several examples of successful initiatives highlighted in the report.  First and foremost, he noted that the involvement of people living with HIV was an essential element of all efforts to respond to the disease. Programmes in Burundi and Rwanda as well as in the Caribbean, initially set up as self-support groups, had become major actors in prevention and care through positive response and creative planning.  In the area of protecting youth, he

noted that positive enterprises, such as India’s university programme “Talk AIDS”, were now being initiated by the youth themselves.

Dr. Piot said there were also leadership examples at the legislative level.  He noted that the Philippines had passed a truly exemplary AIDS law.  This was exceptional not only because it mandated duties at local levels, but also because it explicitly set out the steps that should be taken by community leaders, local government officials and religious leaders, among others.  That model was now being considered for adoption by other countries.

Along with leadership, the magnitude of international AIDS efforts also required more money, Dr. Piot said.  “We know that leadership works, so the biggest challenge now is to provide the resources to get the job done,” he added.  He recalled the Secretary-General’s call to action during the Abuja summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) where between $7 and $10 billion a year had been identified as the minimum needed to contain the epidemic.  At that conference the Secretary-General had also called for the establishment of a global fund for HIV/AIDS.

Dr. Piot said that the analysis highlighted in Science magazine noted that a little more than $9 billion would be needed, well in the middle of the Secretary-General’s estimate.  That research had shown that the resources should be divided equally for prevention and care initiatives.  About half of the magazine’s

$9.2 billion estimate would go to sub-Saharan Africa.  He added, however, that perhaps complicating matters further was the reality that the amounts needed for prevention and care varied from region to region.  In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, about two-thirds of estimated resources should be allocated for care and one-third for prevention.  That was because of the large number of people already infected with the virus.

In Asia, however, the larger portion of resource allocations would be for prevention, since that region was heavily populated but the overall number of AIDS cases was still relatively low.  He went on to say that the article noted that while some $2 billion a year was already allocated to fight the disease globally, the proposed global fund was envisioned to fill the funding gap.

On the proposed fund itself, Dr. Piot was astonished that contributions had already started to come in from the United States and other Governments as well as private organizations.  He said that an AIDS dedicated fund would provide added value, in that it would not divert billions of dollars from other programmes.  It would also leverage private actors, since foundations and corporations were usually unlikely to contribute to bilateral development assistance programmes.  A global fund would also facilitate the efficient channeling of resources, particularly in developing countries.

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For information media. Not an official record.