Towards Zero New Infections Means Taking HIV/AIDS ‘Out of the Shadows’, Panel Hears as It Grapples with Ways to Defeat Epidemic Far Outpacing Preventive Measures

8 June 2011

Towards Zero New Infections Means Taking HIV/AIDS ‘Out of the Shadows’, Panel Hears as It Grapples with Ways to Defeat Epidemic Far Outpacing Preventive Measures

8 June 2011
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-fifth General Assembly

High-Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS

Panel Discussion (PM)

Towards Zero New Infections Means Taking HIV/AIDS ‘Out of the Shadows’, Panel Hears


as It Grapples with Ways to Defeat Epidemic Far Outpacing Preventive Measures


The tragic 30-year arc of the AIDS virus, which had left in its wake some 30 million people dead, nearly as many struggling to live with the disease and vast numbers of orphans, had likewise left the international community scrambling to answer a host of complex questions, such as how to accelerate targeted prevention interventions, and perhaps most critically, what can be done stop new infections.

That challenge — getting to a world with zero new infections — posed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his latest report on the state of the international community’s response to the virus, was the subject of a panel discussion held this afternoon in connection with General Assembly’s high-level review of the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS and the 2006 Political Declaration, which opened at Headquarters today.  An earlier panel focused on a new global compact for HIV/AIDS.  (See Press Release GA/11087)

“How can we take HIV out of the shadows if we don’t have the confidence to talk openly about all aspects of the disease, especially with groups affected by it?” asked Marie-Josée Jacobs, Minister of Cooperation and Humanitarian Affairs of Luxembourg, who chaired the afternoon panel.  The discussion was moderated by South African talk show host Kgomosto Matsuyane, and featured Jarbas Barbosa, Vice-Minister of Health of Brazil, Jaevion Nelson of the Jamaica Youth Action Network and Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Acknowledging the significant progress made over the past 30 years, Ms. Jacobs said the HIV/AIDS epidemic was still far outpacing the measures to tackle it, with some 7,000 new infections coming to light each day.  Therefore, in order to achieve zero new infections, prevention initiatives must be evidenced-based, health-focused and targeted to young people, men who have sex with men, sex workers, prisoners and other vulnerable groups.  “We must have courage so all people can have access to prevention and adequate health care,” she said.

“This is a tough, tough challenge,” said Dr. Barbosa, reminding participants that smallpox was the only disease that had ever been eradicated worldwide.  Reaching zero HIV infections, therefore, would require a combination of progressive public-health initiatives, technical cooperation to provide new tools, drugs and testing mechanisms, and above all, strong political will.

Despite past achievements, “we have to admit that worldwide prevalence rates and the rate of new infections is unacceptable,” he said, calling for concerted efforts to overcome the visible and invisible barriers to access to preventive measures, including treatment, some of which were related to weak health systems, lagging support from development partners and complicated trade and regulatory schemes.  In addition, rampant stigma and discrimination were “double burdens” placed on those living with the disease.  If those and other barriers were not clearly identified, they would be difficult to surmount, he said.

He went on to note that an active civil society had been crucial to Brazil’s success, and an early, groundbreaking law on HIV/AIDS that had been passed by Congress and generated by grassroots organizations in the country.  “We cannot wait another 30 years to figure out how to address these issues,” he said, calling on Member States to adopt a strong declaration at the end of the High-Level Meeting as a tool, not just to build on past success, but to build the platform for eradicating HIV/AIDS in the near future.

Ms. Clark also was among those who spoke frankly and passionately about the devastating impact of stigma, discrimination and harmful social attitudes on efforts to stop the spread of HIV.  She decried practises such as discrimination against homosexual and transgender persons, criminalization of drug use and users, and social marginalization of women and girls.  “Tackling these issues requires leadership to bring HIV/AIDS out of the shadows,” she said, calling on political leaders, health officials, community focal points, activists and parents to speak up about and take action on ending the spread of HIV.

She also highlighted the special role that legal authorities played in the battle against HIV.  Indeed, policies and legislation could either “hold back, or support” prevention strategies.  She noted that UNDP had recently convened a Global Commission on HIV and the Law to examine legal environments in an attempt to identify policies that were conducive to a positive response.  That panel would soon issue its initial report.

“What we also know is that there is no point in having prevention efforts that aren’t targeted at anybody,” she said, reiterating the role of leadership at every level, attacking stigma and reaching marginalized groups.  “No disease stays in a ghetto; we are all in this together and we must get out of our comfort zones and discuss this matter openly and comprehensively.”

In that vein, Mr. Nelson reminded participants that at 7,000 new infections a day, some 21,000 more people would be coping with the effects of HIV when the Assembly’s High-Level Meeting closed on Friday.  The only way to reach the goal of zero new infections was to end discrimination, especially dangerous legal regimes that increased vulnerability of young people, drug users, men who have sex with men, women and girls, and other marginalized groups.

“We can reach zero infections; we can reach our goals, but there are too many laws standing in the way,” he said, calling for an end to laws and policies that punished people who used drugs, criminalized behaviour between consenting same-sex couples, and criminalized people because of their HIV status.  He also called for targeted evidence-based programmes, as far too many people were dying because interventions failed to address their needs.  Such failed interventions lacked consultation and participation of affected populations.

“We must all do the right thing,” he said, calling on Governments to adopt legal and policy frameworks which protected populations that bore the greatest burden and supported universal access to prevention, treatment and care.  Laws in his own country of Jamaica were counterproductive to civil society efforts to reach zero infections, he said, as they often targeted HIV-infected women and girls, and gays and lesbians with criminal action.

Recounting the chilling words of a friend, he said: “Because of the level of homophobia in Jamaica, you can never tell what might happen if you go into a drugstore and buy a condom.”  The road to zero infections by 2015 required the active involvement of young people, supported by adults, in gaining access to life-saving information, such as how to negotiate safe sex and safely use condoms.

When the floor was opened for audience participation, there were strong calls for Governments to “face realities on the ground”.  That required not only frank discussion, but ensuring the active involvement of affected groups, several speakers said.  That point was driven home by a 28-year-old woman from Rwanda, who said she had been born with HIV and had lost her mother to the disease at the age of 5.  As one of the very few children born with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa still alive today — thanks to antiretroviral drugs — she was uniquely placed to call for greater emphasis on young people with HIV, who, with access to the right information, could be the vanguard of a global response.

A speaker from Indonesia chided the room for ignoring one huge group that urgently needed to be targeted, which she called the “4-M Group” — millions of mobile men with money living in a macho environment.  Those men were not only ignored, but they themselves blatantly ignored calls for action against HIV.  She asked: was it their human right to have sex with anybody, anywhere, any time without care for the consequences; to refuse to use condoms even though they knew they were putting the lives of their partners at risk?  “So I urge you to talk about this issue and try to ensure that men were more responsible because doing so will certainly lead to zero infections among our women and girls, and our children,” she declared.

A representative from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said reaching zero infections had been and would be difficult, because through neglect, intimidation and social stigma, men who had sex with men, sex workers, prisoners and intravenous drug users, among other vulnerable groups, fell outside the social protection net.

“We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to these populations,” he said, calling for urgent action to reach those most vulnerable to discrimination and ensure they had access to services; that people living with the disease were involved in the response no matter what group they belonged to; that gender-based discrimination and violence were eliminated; and that regulatory trade and other barriers that blocked access to prevention, treatment, support and care were addressed.  “It’s no longer about whether we can reach zero infections, but whether we have the will,” he declared. 

The Prime Minister of Saint Maarten, on behalf of the Netherlands, also spoke in the discussion.  Participating as well were representatives of Swaziland, Switzerland, Benin, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Sweden, Sudan, Mozambique, Australia and India.

An observer of the Permanent Observer Mission the Holy See to the United Nations also spoke, as did the Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  The panel discussion was also addressed by civil society representatives, including from the Youth Caucus, South African women’s organizations and the Asia Pacific Coalition.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.