/ 29 April 2011

Aids: No time for complacency

HIV prevention, the mainstay of the response to the HIV epidemic, is in danger of falling off the global agenda. It seems that the rate of new HIV infections has passed its peak — the past decade has seen it fall by 20%. But every day still brings more than 7 000 new HIV infections across the globe. Two-fifths of these are in young people.

How do we capture, in Martin Luther King Junior’s memorable phrase, “the fierce urgency of now” to insist that that is 7 000 infections too many?

Next week the High Level Commission on HIV Prevention, formed by United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) executive director Michel Sidibé convenes on Robben Island to foster new urgency and commitment to HIV prevention. This highly charged venue was proposed by renowned Brazilian marketer Nizan Guanaes: what could better symbolise a long struggle and the power of perseverance to prevail — elements so pertinent to the Aids response?

Prevention remains the surest and most immediate way of halting the Aids epidemic and accelerated HIV-prevention success also makes more feasible the vital task of ensuring that all those who have become infected are able to get life-saving HIV treatment when they need it.

Preventing HIV works, but flagging interest requires a new, determined surge in leadership and commitment at every level of government and society to transform the response — putting the interests of those at risk above politics and ideology. It requires us to learn from and support people vulnerable to HIV, not blame them.

The UNAids commission has joined the call for an HIV-prevention revolution. A revolution in which we are all called upon to do our part: insisting that leaders and policymakers understand and act on the dynamics of their specific epidemics and expanding the practical protection of human rights to overcome the inequities that drive the spread of HIV.

The young people who overwhelmingly led the popular uprising that tore down Egypt’s corrupt and morally bankrupt regime are a global inspiration. Their spirit and their mastery of new forms of cellphone- and internet-accelerated social movements are part of the agenda we must harness for an HIV-prevention revolution.

This is our collective responsibility, but our legacy will, above all, be how much we can inspire and create the space for a new generation of young leaders to take over the vanguard of this revolution.

The centrepiece of our deliberations on Robben Island will be to hear the demands of young people themselves for a renewed Aids response and the practical commitments that leaders from business, politics, diplomacy and the media can make to further those demands.

The next global milestone in the Aids response will come in June, when the United Nations General Assembly comes together to review progress and chart the future course of the global Aids response. Our hope is that the spirit of struggle and renewal will inspire that gathering to sweep away any vestige of complacency in the Aids response.

Nobel Peace Prize laureates Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu (co-chair) and Dr Mohamed ElBaradei are members of the UNAids High Level Commission on HIV Prevention