Africans mark significant progress on World AIDS day

Health authorities report that the continent has seen deaths from AIDS and new HIV infections on the decline in recent years, and the social stigma against those with the disease is lifting.

Ben Curtis/AP
Young schoolboys walk home at the end of the school day in the yard of the Hot Courses Primary School, in the village of Nyumbani, which caters to children who lost their parents to HIV and grandparents who lost their children to HIV, with the bookend generations taking care of each other, in Kenya Nov. 21.

Governments, civil society groups, and people with AIDS in Africa marked World AIDS Day on Saturday, with growing optimism for an AIDS-free generation as reports are showing the epidemic has stabilized.

Civilians gathered in public places to mark the day when the world remembers lives lost from the epidemic. From stadiums to small market centers and churches, hope registered as many who had gone public with their status gathered and proclaimed that the disease is no longer a “death sentence.”

 “As we remember those who have succumbed to this disease, we must resolve today that we must win this war about HIV/AIDS. If we lose it, humanity stands the risk of being wiped out,” said Kalonzo Musyoka, Kenya’s vice president in Nakuru town, where he unveiled Kenya’s Equity Tribunal, an antidiscrimination panel for people living with HIV.

Kenya is the first country in the world to launch such a tribunal, which will enforce laws and regulations to eliminate discrimination against people living with HIV, according to Mr. Musyoka. It will address discrimination due to HIV such as dismissal from employment or denial of services.

“This is a bold step towards eliminating stigma and looking after the rights of the people,” said Musyoka.

The tribunal is one of the measures African countries are taking to end exclusion for people with HIV. In the continent, AIDS-related deaths have fallen by 32 percent in the last six years, according to the UNAIDS 2012 Global Epidemic Report. The report also noted that new infections are on the decline: In sub-Saharan Africa, the most affected region, an estimated 1.8 million were infected in 2011 compared with 2.4 million in 2001.

“We have moved from despair to hope. Far fewer people are dying from AIDS. Twenty-five countries have reduced new infections by more than 50 percent. I want these results in every country,” said Michael Sibidé, UNAIDS executive director in a message for World AIDS Day.

Analysts say the gains are resulting from sustained investment around the epidemic and politicians who are also joining the fight and showing leadership, with presidents declaring it a national disaster in several countries.

Many more people are now using condoms and sterile needles. Governments have also put more people on antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) and taken services to prevent mother-to-child transmission in villages. In Kenya, PMTCT services have reduced infections in babies by 60 percent. Prevention groups are also putting more emphasis on prevention practices such a male circumcision.

“The efforts that have been put in place are bearing fruits, so if we put in more efforts, we can go to zero infections,” says Prof. Mohammed Karama, an epidemiologist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute. “We believe the HIV/AIDS has stabilized epidemiologically. This is a result of multiple approaches. It is the people getting to know their status, the prevention of people who are positive to avoid the transmission to other people. The use of condoms had also helped among discordant couples.”

However, with the celebrations, some advocates are concerned the challenge ahead is being underestimated. Global advocacy group ONE, for example, said 6.6 million of the 15 million who need ARVs have no access, new infections every year stand at 2.5 million globally, and funding for ARVs has leveled off limiting the growth of prevention and treatment programs.

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