Paper Edition | Page: 21
Rebel yell: An anti-circumcision activist campaigns in front of the Washington Convention Center with a sign warning passersby about the perceived dangers of circumcision.
Thirty-one years after the fatal disease was discovered and after it claimed the lives of millions of people, and millions are still living with the virus, the world’s largest meeting on HIV/AIDS at the Washington Convention Center was marked by great optimism that the disease is already much more under control.
Millions of people with HIV/AIDS now live normal and longer lives thanks to the availability of more affordable and effective antiretroviral drugs around the world, including in Indonesia.
When infected people regularly take antiretroviral drugs, it reduces the risk of transmitting the disease to others. Pregnant HIV-positive women who take the drugs decrease the chances they will transmit the disease to their babies during birth or breast feeding.
Hundreds of people with HIV testified in Washington that they were much healthier after taking the medication, as they believe they will be able to maintain their health as long as they have easy access to medication.
Pledge: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses the International AIDS Conference. She promised to provide more funds to finance the circumcizing of people across the globe.
It was an amazing development, as expressed by a senior American official.
“The ability to prevent and treat the disease has advanced beyond what many might have reasonably hoped 22 years ago. Yes, AIDS is still incurable, but it no longer has to be a death sentence,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her keynote speech during the meeting, which received several standing ovations from the audience.
We need to remember, however, that the discovery of a vaccine might still be very far away, as cautioned by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Sir Elton John and Bill Gates. That means millions of people, including innocent victims, will still have to endure the sufferings of pain and possible social stigmatization.
According to NIH, it needed 45 years to develop a polio vaccine, 22 years for hepatitis A and 12 years for hepatitis B.
Elton John, who donated millions of dollars to disease eradication efforts, warned in his speech during the conference, “We need prevention programs to be funded. We need treatment to be expanded. We need critical research to continue. We need a vaccine to be discovered.”
Echoing his own experience as a gay man, the musician pointed out a no less dangerous problem caused by the disease: stigma. “We can’t get those living with HIV on treatment if they’re afraid to disclose their status because of stigma or homophobia.”
Bill Gates, philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder whose foundation has poured US$4 billion to help create a better world, including to treat the disease, said, “No one should think that we have the tools yet. But we will have the tools if we stay the course.”
Many billions of dollars has been spent to reach that level and the world still needs more billions to be spent to win the war.
Controversial: Protesters stand in front of the Gilead booth, acccusing the pharmaceutical company of prioritizing profits over the interests of HIV/AIDS patients. The company’s drug has been widely used in preventing the disease.
That money comes from taxpayers in industrialized countries and individual and corporate donors. But it also means the disease will continue to create huge economic activities, including for pharmaceutical and health product companies, research and development organizations, and also for civil society groups.
The Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has disbursed $410.6 million from its $544.2 million fund commitment to Indonesia for three diseases, mostly the first. Indonesia is one of the largest recipients of money from the organization.
But not less important is that people should alter risky behavior and society needs to be more open and helpful to people who suffer from the disease because drugs alone are not at all enough.
Meanwhile, amid the expectation that we will win the war against the killer virus, a friendly reminder from a group of “sinners” was quite striking
“Be nice to us, sex workers and drug users” was one of the strongest demands conveyed to more than 21,000 participants at the recent International AIDS Conference here in Washington. It came from an American organization of sex workers and the activists who assist them.
“When there are no drug users, and no sex workers like us, there is no international conference like this. So you also will never have the opportunity to come to DC you know?” sex worker Stacey answered sharply when a man who came to Washington thanks to the invitation of an international donor group asked about the meaning of the slogan, glaringly displayed at her booth.
Stacey and her friends from the Washington-based Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive (HIPS) were preoccupied with their mission to answer questions from visitors at their booth. The stand was just one of hundreds of booths at the Global Village located on the ground floor of the Washington Convention Center.
Condomize: A group of dancers entertains participants at the Washington AIDS conference as a part of a campaign to promote the use of condoms.
Stacey looked like she was being sarcastic. But it has been a general perception — an oversimplification — that the deadly disease has a strong connection to “unhealthy” or “abnormal sexual activities”, or there are those who have problems with drug addicts because of the irresponsible uses of needles, among other things.
The participants at the Global Village were varied, including activists, people with HIV/AIDS, pharmaceutical companies, NGOs and scientists and government officials. The presence of young people from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) group, including at least three youth from Indonesia, was very evident during the six-day meeting.
This was a very rare opportunity for them as they were able to openly express themselves, because in their home countries, including the US, many are still treated like pariahs.
They marched to the White House to voice their demands that US President Barack Obama should grant more money to finance the war against HIV/AIDS. But as Washington is the most affected area in the US, this city’s residents had even more of a right to insist on more attention from the White House.
In addition, much larger multinational pharmaceutical corporations like Gilead displayed their products and the progress of technology on HIV/AIDS-related disease treatments on the second floor. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization have approved the use of Gilead’s Truvada drug for HIV-negative adults for preventative measures.
Indonesia’s presence, however, was minimal. The country made almost no effort to have its voice heard during the global conference, although at least 300,000 people have the disease in the country. And more than 6 million Indonesians are at high risk. Official data, however, shows the number is much lower.
What Indonesia needs is to use the positive developments with regards to antiretroviral drugs to treat our own people.
— Photos by JP/Kornelius Purba