Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today led senior United Nations officials in marking World AIDS Day by calling for an urgent end to discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS to help combat the spread of the disease.
Mr. Ban said that progress in reversing the AIDS epidemic in some countries is outpaced by new infections on a global scale, making it one of the leading causes of premature death worldwide.
“I urge all countries to remove punitive laws, policies and practices that hamper the AIDS response, including travel restrictions against people living with HIV,” said Mr. Ban. “Successful AIDS responses do not punish people; they protect them.”
Laws that institutionalize discrimination against groups most at risk of the infection, such as sex workers, drug users and men who have sex with men only fuels the epidemic and prevents cost-effective interventions, he added.
“We must ensure that AIDS responses are based on evidence, not ideology, and reach those most in need and most affected,” said the Secretary-General. “On this World AIDS Day, let us uphold the human rights of all people living with HIV, people at risk of infection, and children and families affected by the epidemic.”
Speaking at an event in South Africa, the Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Michel Sidibé also underscored the importance of an AIDS response based on human rights.
“Universal obstacles to human rights are getting in the way of universal access,” Mr. Sidibé told a gathering at the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria.
Later in the day, Mr. Sidibé told President Jacob Zuma that he is “giving hope to millions who have been waiting for South Africa to join the front line in the global response.”
According to 2007 estimates, some 5.7 million people are infected with HIV in South Africa, the largest population living with the disease around the world. Sub-Saharan Africa is the world’s hardest hit region, accounting for over two-thirds of all people living with HIV and nearly three quarters of AIDS-related deaths in 2008.
Mr. Sidibé praised President Zuma for the bold and ambitious goals he set out “to accelerate the AIDS response and cut new infections in half, and scale up treatment to 80 per cent of those who need it by 2011.”
He said that by cutting the number of new infections in Africa in half by 2015, an estimated 2.25 million infections will be averted, saving around $12.5 billion in treatment costs. “That is a huge gain, financially and in human lives.”
In her message to mark the Day, UN Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark noted a recent UNAIDS report which highlighted significant successes in increasing access to life-saving treatment over the last five years, with more than 4 million people in developing countries receiving the necessary medication and almost 3 million lives saved already. New HIV infections have also been reduced by 17 per cent globally since 2001.
Miss Clark said that significant successes in tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS are attributable to promoting the participation of marginalized and vulnerable populations, and the global campaign to drive down the price of key drugs and prevention technologies.
“Unfortunately success is uneven across regions, countries and populations,” she said. “Far too often, prevention programmes are still not reaching those most in need. Too little is being done in too many places to empower girls and women. Stigmatizing homosexuals and refusing to provide harm reduction services for drug users also sets back prevention and treatment work.”
She noted that for every two people put on treatment, five become newly infected with HIV.
Among the most visible commemorations for the Day will be a UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) initiative, in which landmark monuments around the world are set to dim their lights to stress the urgency of halting the epidemic.
The Eiffel Tower in Paris is slated to join the “Lights for Rights” operation by switching off its lights for five minutes this evening, along with the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge in New York among other sites.