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UN AIDS conference

Christina Bergmann / mc
July 24, 2012

"Zero new infections, zero deaths and zero discrimination" are the aims of a UN AIDS conference in Washington. German health minister Daniel Bahr says eradicating AIDS is still an ambitious goal.

German health minister Daniel Bahr at the 2012 UN AIDS conference in Washington
Image: DW-TV

DW: Minister Bahr, how realistic is the conference organizers' vision of a world without AIDS?

Daniel Bahr: It is a very ambitious goal, but successes of recent years have shown that we can move towards it, if we are focused and work hard. Access to medical care has improved significantly; we have also acquired considerable experience in prevention. Things are starting to change in countries which previously had ignored HIV-AIDS, treating it as a taboo. Such change will yield enormous progress. I remain a realist, though, but if we set about things in the right way, then we can achieve a lot.            

Is Germany setting a good example in this respect?

We still do not have the first AIDS-free generation. On the contrary: 2,700 new infections are 2,700 new infections too many. The number of new infections is declining and that is a step in the right direction, a welcome development. But we still need to invest a lot of effort before we reach that an ambitious goal of an AIDS-free society.

Talking to people in Washington I've noticed that the Americans are keen to learn about what the Germans are doing in this field, in which areas they have been successful. What will you be telling them?   

HIV seen through an electron microscope
HIV seen through an electron microscopeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

We've had 25 years of experience in AIDS prevention and I think that is the key – dispelling ignorance, supplying information about the disease and ensuring that this information gets to the target groups. That does not mean broad-based campaigns for the general public, but campaigns that are specifically aimed at men who have sex with men, at prostitutes, at drug users. You have to find the right way of talking to them in their own environment. It is especially important to teach schoolchildren about AIDS. In German schools, the standard of sex education is high and it includes references to the risks involved in certain sexual practices. It is also important that AIDS sufferers themselves come forward and tell their stories so that everybody knows "yes, that is something that could happen to me as well." I believe that is why the rate of new infections in Germany is declining.

When discussing AIDS prevention with colleagues from Africa or eastern Europe how do they react to this approach?

In Africa, I sense that interest is growing. A few years ago, there were many reservations mostly because of differences in culture, religious attitudes and the like. Now things are changing, because everybody can see how great the dangers are for society and people are starting to appreciate that there is a choice here between poverty and affluence. There is more openness, an interest in learning more. We want to make use of this so we can establish contact and share our experience. There are, unfortunately, governments still in power that pursue very restrictive polices on HIV and AIDS, often combined, equally unfortunately, with repressive polices on drugs and homosexuality. These issues are interconnected. It is important to keep up a steady flow of information and to seek dialogue.

Which of the three do you think poses the biggest challenge – research, funding or overcoming prejudices?

I would say that our best chance is to be found in overcoming prejudices, because that is the key to lasting success. The biggest challenge is still research. I do not see a breakthrough yet. We welcome every step forward and it has our support. But I think that progress in research is a double-edged sword. There is the worry that people could react the wrong way and are lulled into thinking that better treatment means that AIDS isn't so dangerous anymore. That's quite wrong, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases will always involve personal sacrifice and they also drive up the cost of health care. We should always stay focused on prevention while chipping away at prejudice.                          

In times when money is short, funding is surely also a challenge. What contribution is Germany making?

Germany is active internationally and our contribution consists of supporting projects and helping with the global financing of such projects, just like other countries. It is important that we bring partners together. I was especially impressed by remarks made by the new President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim. He wasn't just referring to HIV and AIDS, but to health information campaigns generally, other sexually transmitted diseases and malaria. What is needed here is poverty reduction and education. All are linked together. As the new World Bank president said "We don't constantly need new programs, one after the next, what we do need is better networking and cooperation between the institutions." That is something I wholeheartedly support.              

German health minister Daniel Bahr is among the senior government officials attending the conference. He spoke to DW's Christina Bergmann in Washington.