“Personalising the risk and impact of HIV / AIDS”

Da: “IFRC” 30 may 2004 – Rock in Rio Lisbon – For a Better World

We are certainly in the right place today to talk about HIV and AIDS. We need to start by personalising the risk and the impact of AIDS. AIDS is not someone else’s issue, it is my issue and it is your issue. Africa may be hardest hit continent at the moment, but in this globalised world what happens to our brothers and sisters on another continent also affects our world close to home. SARS also made the world see just how interconnected we are. There is no way forward but to care for each other. That means:

1. A new way of thinking about access to treatment. Just a few years ago it seemed acceptable to most of the world that only the affluent – a small percentage of the world’s population – had access to treatment. Drug companies catered to that market, and this was considered “normal”. It is totally unacceptable that most people have no access to treatment, while drug companies make record profits. Our world deserves a better and more humane system than that. These days the idea has taken hold that every one should have access to treatment. We must do all we can to make sure this idea becomes well established, and a reality. Countries need to cherish the capacity the TRIPS agreement has given them to protect the public health, and not sign this away in free trade agreements.

2. A humane approach to drug users. Drug users who want to deal with an addiction need real alternatives like methadone. Yet this treatment is still illegal in some countries. Brutality through “war” on drug users is no substitute for care. The prohibitionist approach to drugs has been tried since 1909, and it has failed. Politicians exploit the communities fear about drug users. As Alex Wodak, President, International Harm Reduction Network said recently, “prohibitionist policies are political viagra for politicians with fading electoral potency”. The humanitarians of the world have to say, “enough!”

3. The evidence that harm reduction works has to be followed which means opening needle and syringe exchanges, and not just a few. This saves not only those who would share needles from transmission of HIV, but also prevents the epidemic taking hold in the broader population. Leaders who fail to explain to the community why such programmes make sense are just not doing their job. We as humanitarians need to call them to account for this failure to protect the public health.

4. Being frank about sexuality. Some religious leaders irresponsibly oppose condom use, and some even spread falsehoods about the effectiveness of condoms. But people have sex! The point is we able to effectively protect our health and care for each other? As the Swedish government said at the recent World Health Assembly, “we need to avoid digging ourselves further into our moral trenches”.

Young people need adults who are not afraid of the facts of life, so that life can be lived well and protected. In partnership with the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, the Red Cross Red Crescent has a global anti-stigma campaign, with the signature line “The truth about AIDS. Pass it on?..”. This sums up what I am saying here. Rather than tolerate myths and hatred, let’s face the facts and act on them with robust humanitarian spirit. “Pass it on” is the Red Cross Red Crescent way of saying “talk with others, especially the marginalised and excluded, and mobilise your community to action”. We can act on what we hear today. As Josephine Chiturumani, a woman living with HIV from Zimbabwe Red Cross has said, “That power of humanity we have, let’s use it!