Opening Day: United Nations negotiates how to win the AIDS battle

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"No Retreat" - AIDS activists peacefully demonstrate in front of the United Nations in New York City during the High Level Meeting on AIDS.

“It is too soon to halt our efforts and to be put off by the cost of treatment and budget cuts,” said United Nations (UN) President Joseph Deiss to the packed general assembly hall Wednesday morning at the opening of the 2011 UN High-Level Meeting on AIDS. Ten million still lack access to treatment and far too many men, women and children are still being infected with HIV, he said, and we have to continue to take care, treatment, prevention and support measures.

“I call on each and every one of you to take on the responsibility for the success of the battle against AIDS.”

Delegates from around the world convened in New York City for the meeting, which many predict will be the last UN meeting on AIDS. Bolstered by new scientific evidence announced in May that antiretroviral therapy reduces an HIV-infected person’s ability to sexually transmit the virus by more than 96 percent, the advocacy community is pressing nations to step up their financial and political commitments to end the AIDS pandemic once and for all.

For several days nation delegates  have debated language to be included in the United Nations declaration on AIDS, the meeting’s outcome document, until the wee hours of the morning. U.S. Global AIDS Ambassador Eric Goosby, MD, and his colleagues told civil society representatives this afternoon that the declaration draft currently includes a goal of 15 million people on antiretroviral therapy (ART) by 2015 and a commitment to address the critical gaps in funding to achieve this goal. Negotiations are ongoing, but the declaration is expected to be agreed upon and released on Friday, Goosby said. He also confirmed that the document language supporting human rights is “very strong,” while his colleagues cautioned that other governments’ individual laws are sovereign and above outside influence.

An AIDS activist promotes condom use outside the United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS.

During introductory remarks, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke to the huge role addressing human rights plays in defeating the pandemic. “If we are to relegate AIDS to the history books we must be bold. That means facing sensitive issues such as men who have sex with men, drug users and the sex trade.” Ki-moon even commented on his own experience adjusting to these topics as he started his role at the United Nations. “I have learned to say what needs to be said because millions of lives are at stake.”

Meanwhile, outside in the intense midday heat, some 1,000 activists made their way from Bryant Park to just outside the United Nations compound, chanting – act up, act now, end AIDS. Civil society representatives urged the Obama administration to send as high-level a representative to the meeting as possible, to demonstrate the United States’ continued commitment and leadership to the AIDS response. Though the president was unable to attend, he did issue a statement in honor of the conference on the White House website and called for a strategic and unified commitment to end the pandemic.

“More governments need to contribute to this effort.  More awareness is needed so that no one with HIV/AIDS is stigmatized or discriminated against.  More coordination is needed so that the investments we’re making are preventing as many infections, delivering as many treatments and saving as many lives as possible,” the president said in his statement.  “No nation can do this alone.”

Alicia Keys (far left and on screen) speaks at an event on women and children before this week's United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS.

A pre-meeting event Tuesday evening focusing on women and girls featured musical artists Annie Lennox and Alicia Keys, who both gave powerful speeches focusing on a renewed commitment to ending AIDS. “I know we bailed out Wall Street in a week. I know we can do this,” Keys said in regards to ending the AIDS epidemic. “Now that we know that treatment can stop the disease in its tracks, we would be literally getting away with murder if we don’t.”

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