Drug-fuelled HIV surge raises concerns at AIDS meeting

Mariëtte Le Roux
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Experts have warned that new HIV infections, while down overall, have surged in some parts of the world

Celebrities from actress Charlize Theron and pop star Elton John to Britain's Prince Harry will call for action on the second day of a world AIDS assembly in Amsterdam Tuesday, as concerns grow over an HIV surge in some parts of the world.

Some 15,000 delegates -- researchers, campaigners, activists and people living with the AIDS-causing virus -- have gathered for a five-day war council amid dire warnings that complacency and a shortage of funds may yet cause AIDS to spiral out of control.

While reviewing the latest science and policy developments, the 22nd International AIDS conference is also seeking to harness the star power of celebrity activists such as singer Conchita Wurst to bolster a battle that experts warn is losing ground in certain countries -- largely those where strict laws cause drug users to share virus-laced needles.

The 2014 Eurovision song winner, an Austrian drag queen who announced in April she was HIV-positive, used the opening ceremony on Monday to question why millions of people still have no access to life-saving drugs.

"How long will it take until we make our research and affordable therapies accessible to every single human who needs it?" she asked.

"I would like to know why medical treatment advances that I have access to are still not available to so many affected."

With a record 36.9 million people now living with HIV, experts warn that complacency, and a shortage of billions of dollars, risked undoing or even reversing many hard-won gains.

"In Eastern Europe and Central Asia new infections have increased 30 percent since 2010," International AIDS Society (IAS) president Linda-Gail Bekker said.

It was, she said, "the only region in the world where HIV is rapidly increasing, in large part related to injecting drug use."

A UNAIDS report last week said that new HIV infections, while down overall, were rising in about 50 countries.

- Too slow -

"Despite all the remarkable advances that have been made, progress on ending AIDS is still slow," said Tedros Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization.

And he warned the world "will not" meet UN 2020 targets on HIV/AIDS, "because there are too many places in the world where people don't get prevention and treatment services they need."

Spread mainly through sex and blood contact, the immune-system attacking HIV virus has infected nearly 80 million people since the early 1980s.

More than 35 million have died.

"When I was born 20 years ago with HIV, the landscape of the epidemic looked very different to what it does now," said Mercy Ngulube, a youth activist attending the conference.

"It is so wonderful to be able to live a life where I don't have to wake up and wonder if we have the tools to fight HIV. But it is also sad to live a life where I know that we have the tools and I know that people cannot access them."

According to UNAIDS, some 1.8 million people were newly infected with AIDS last year.

- 'No' to war on drugs -

This is partly due to the criminalisation of injecting drugs, particularly heroin, in many countries.

Fear forces users onto the fringes of society and puts them at risk of infection by sharing soiled needles, then passing the virus on to their sexual partners.

"Close to half -- more than 45 percent of all new HIV infections in the world are in... the most affected and hard to reach groups, and that of course includes people who use drugs," said Chris Beyrer, director of the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at John Hopkins University.

The meeting saw an address by UNAIDS head Michel Sidibe interrupted by women protesting what they called the "patriarchy machine."

Sidibe faces calls for his resignation over complaints that he shielded a deputy from sexual harassment claims and attacked whistleblowers.

"Michel, we call on you to step away from the scripted and rehearsed propaganda machine and for once look us in the face... and speak the truth," one woman shouted.

Sidibe assured the group saying "I heard you," but added there must be no division in the fight against AIDS.

"We have come so far, but we have miles to go," he said.

The conference paid tribute to six IAS colleagues who died when Malaysian Airlines MH17, on its way to the 2014 AIDS conference in Melbourne, was shot down.

"The world continues to seek justice for what happened on that dreadful day," conference chairman Peter Reiss said.