Interview: Don't forget HIV epidemic, UNAIDS chief urges on World AIDS Day


by Martina Fuchs

GENEVA, Dec. 1 (Xinhua) -- The head of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) issued a stark warning on World AIDS Day that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is becoming a "neglected disease" and that the colliding two epidemics of COVID-19 and HIV need to be fought at the same time. She also voiced her optimism that a cure against both could be found.

The World AIDS Day, which falls on Dec. 1, is an international day dedicated to raising awareness about the spread of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic and mourning those who have died of the disease. This year's theme is "Global solidarity, shared responsibility."

"This topic is so important because the global HIV response was already off track before we were hit by the current COVID-19 pandemic," Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS and an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, told Xinhua in an interview.

"Last year, we had 1.7 million people newly infected, that's three times above the target we had set. We had 690,000 people who died of HIV-related diseases. That again is way above the target."

WORK ON NEW INTERIM TARGETS

The Geneva-based UNAIDS is leading the global effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Since the first cases of HIV were reported more than 35 years ago, 78 million people have become infected with HIV and 35 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses. According to UNAIDS data, 38 million people around the world were living with HIV at the end of 2019.

"We have so many young girls and women who are newly infected every year. Every week, 5,500 young girls, young women are infected. This is way above the targets globally, and now we have been hit by COVID-19. COVID-19 is now blowing us more off course," Byanyima said.

In its "World AIDS Day Report 2020" released on Tuesday, the UNAIDS said getting the HIV response back on track would require new interim targets and that it was working with partners to develop a set of new proposed targets for 2025 that, if achieved, would make the 2030 goal still possible.

"We are not close. We are not on track. We are going to release new targets, more ambitious targets, but achievable, that we hope if we fight hard to reach them, we will come back to beat AIDS by 2030," Byanyima stressed.

The UNAIDS head also warned that COVID-19 and the lockdown measures around the world have had far-reaching negative effects on access to HIV medicines, testing and treatment facilities.

CALL FOR COMMITMENT, FUNDING

As pharma giants are developing a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, Byanyima said she was hopeful that a cure for HIV, one of the ultimate long-term goals in medical research, could be found as well.

"Of course, we can find a cure. Of course, we can even find a vaccine. If we have been able in the short time to find a vaccine for COVID-19, why can't we get a vaccine for HIV? It is about commitment. It is about putting resources behind it," she said.

"This is why it's so important that we maintain the global commitments on HIV. This is why governments must continue to invest in innovations for medicines and we are leading this agenda of finding new medicines, new health technologies," she added.

Byanyima said that as a member of the Global HIV Prevention Coalition, China was helping to move the prevention agenda forward.

"China is a country which is showing a good example in many respects on HIV/AIDS. China is making good progress in terms of the targets, in terms of putting its people on treatment and in terms of prevention. China is investing in health technologies," she said.

UNAIDS meanwhile warned that the funding gap for the HIV response is widening, estimating that 26.2 billion U.S. dollars would be required in 2020 alone.

Byanyima appealed to the international donor community and governments to sustain their funding, while calling for debt relief and debt cancellation by developed nations.

"The message is that of global solidarity, and to call on them to maintain their investments in health and particularly in fighting these two epidemics," she urged.

"We need the rich countries to maintain this aid. This will not break the bank for them. But it will mean a lot for the developing countries. It would turn the curve and help them end COVID-19 and AIDS. We need to give debt relief and debt cancellation so that they have the fiscal space to invest in their health systems," she said.

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