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Opinion: Don't jeopardize progress in fight against AIDS

July 27, 2018

The International AIDS Conference has warned that advances in fighting the spread of the HIV virus must not be undermined. Stigmatizing those who have contracted the virus is dangerous and wrong, says Astrid Prange.

Teenager with HIV
Image: imago/imagebroker

The main takeaway from the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam is clear: Fighting the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a matter of political will. Those who oppose sexual education and the use of contraception, or propagate notions of the traditional family but refuse to help wives infected with HIV and their children, or ostracize drug addicts and scapegoat homosexuals are responsible for blocking progress in fighting the spread of HIV. 

In recent years, tremendous progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. These days, leading a fulfilling life despite being infected with HIV is very much possible. The spread of HIV has slowed down considerably — thanks to education, medical advances, global solidarity and a responsible approach to health care. Today, HIV is no longer automatically associated with death. Instead, it has become increasingly to live with the virus, even in the world's poorest countries.

Botswana leads the way

The fight against AIDS is a major success story. And the numbers prove it. In 2017, 22 million people of a global total of 37 million infected with HIV received AIDS medication. Of those, 4 million live in South Africa, the country with the most comprehensive state-run AIDS treatment program. Last year, for the first time since 2000, the number of AIDS-related deaths dropped below 1 million.

Astrid Prange
DW's Astrid PrangeImage: DW/P. Böll

Combating AIDS has been especially successful in Botswana, the country with the second-highest rate of HIV infections (17 percent) worldwide. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of infected people with access to antiretroviral drugs climbed from 50 to 84 percent. As a result, the number of AIDS-related deaths dropped from 18,000 (2003) to 4,000 (in 2017).

Read more: HIV self-testing kits to go on sale in Germany

Downward spiral in Russia

While major progress is being made on a global scale, negative developments in eastern Europe and Central Asia risk jeopardizing everything that has been achieved. Here, a combination of ignorance, religious convictions, traditions, taboos, discrimination and political irresponsibility could undermine the advances that have been made.

The situation in Russia is particularly dire. UNAIDS reports that approximately 1 million Russians are infected with HIV. And the number of new infections each year rose from 50,000 in 2004 to 100,000 in 2017. But merely some 360,000 infected people have access to AIDS medication.  

This is partly the result of Russia's ignoring international standards on how to prevent the spread of HIV. Indeed, some Russian religious figures bizarrely claim that AIDS is "God's punishment," while nationalist politicians vow to stand up for families but do nothing to stop husbands infecting their wives with HIV. Or fail to stop the children of such couples becoming infected with the virus — even though there are medical ways to prevent this.

Read moreHIV infects one teen girl every 3 minutes, says UN 

A crossroads

In countries where a human life counts very little, treating those with AIDS has low priority. In some places, where AIDS is still considered the "gay plague," there is little incentive to invest in the national health care services to prevent the spread of HIV. In countries like these, sexual education at schools is not prioritized and no money is collected to combat AIDS because those who contract HIV are blamed for their own plight. 

We have entered a crucial moment in the fight against AIDS. Whether and how we seek to prevent the spread of the HIV virus speaks volumes about the (in)competence and (in)humanity of our political and religious leaders, and reveals the caring — or uncaring — face of whole societies.