Parliamentary Meeting on the occasion of the XVIII International AIDS conference
The five-metre high red ribbon attached to the classical façade of the Austrian Parliament building represented a very public statement of support for the global “aids2010” conference which took place in Vienna in July. The magnificent Greek-revival building itself played host to an IPU event for Parliamentarians which formed an important part of the international gathering.
Over 70 Parliamentarians from 35 countries gathered to hear leading experts discuss a range of topics at the heart of the debate on how to stop the spread of the HIV virus, and care for those already infected.
Despite its disappearance from the media headlines in Europe and North America, HIV continues to be a major epidemic. There are 33.4 million people living with HIV, with 2.7 million new infections expected this year, of whom almost half a million will be children.
Tragically, there will be two million deaths connected to AIDS, many of them avoidable if individuals had been started on the proper course of treatment in good time.
It is Africa which has been most devastated, with countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Mozambique particularly hard hit, (though there are also 2.4 million people living with HIV in India).
The IPU programme addressed two key topics: firstly whether the criminal justice system helps or hinders the spread of the virus; and secondly, what steps can countries take to halt mother-to-child transmissions.
Three speakers addressed the first topic: Professor Manfred Novak, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture; Susan Timberlake, a senior law adviser to UNAIDS; Michaela Clayton who works with an NGO in Namibia; and Mikhail Grishankov, a member of the Russian Duma. Many of the highest risk groups include injecting drug users, sex workers and gay men. In large parts of the world, the law can work against encouraging people who fall into these categories from coming forward to be tested and receive the drugs that will help save their lives and reduce the rate at which they can infect others.
In many African countries, for example, it is illegal for men to have sex with men, so there is no incentive for someone who believes they may have been exposed to the virus to come forward only to end up in jail.
There was a range of views among parliamentarians, broadly reflecting the differing cultural mores of their homelands.The experts urged us to set aside our own personal views on the morality of others and focus on what steps might practically be taken to prevent the inexorable rise in new infections.
Another theme was on the use of travel bans to try and halt the virus spreading. Some 51 countries have restrictions on entry, most put in place in the 1980s when little was understood about how the virus operated.
In reality, HIV is a transmissible, not contagious, disease, and recently the US and China lifted their entry restrictions by re-classifying HIV as a non-contagious disease, which means the next global conference can be held in America for the first time. Travel restrictions did nothing to prevent the spread of HIV, and the consensus was that they should now be lifted.
The second topic aroused less controversy but is equally important, namely how to cut down on mother-to-child transmissions? The speakers in this session were Dr Chewe Luo from UNICEF, Henrietta Bogapane-Zulu, South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Public Works, and Dr Marleen Temmerman a Belgian Senator and a member of the IPU Advisory Group on HIV/AIDS.
The delegates heard how children represent 17% of new global infections. Of these, 30% will die before their first birthday and 50% before their second. Yet this can largely be avoided; if HIV positive pregnant women are given the proper treatment then the number of cases of transmissions can fall to less than 2%.
Yet an HIV diagnosis is an enormous stigma in many countries which can bring with it marginalisation and violence against the women concerned, with the result that too few women are coming forward to be tested and treated.
Although there was no consensus among parliamentarians on either of the topics, there was an appreciation of the scale of the task ahead and the need to ensure that we give a lead in our own countries to ensure that this global epidemic continues to receive the attention and funding that it self-evidently still requires.