Seven young delegates from the World Youth Alliance attended the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC on July 22 – 27. The meeting brings together scientists, experts, and civil society actors in the largest conference on any health or development issue. The WYA team was encouraged by the significant successes in the fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic that were heralded at the Conference, including an overall decrease in transmission of HIV, improved access to antiretroviral therapy, and a significant reduction in mother-to-child transmission. These advances point to the promise of an evidence-based response to HIV/AIDS and demonstrate the power of human ingenuity in the fight against the disease.
The official theme of the Conference this year was “Turning the Tide Together”. However, it was the Condomize! Campaign sponsored by UNFPA and the Condom Project in collaboration with Durex, UNAIDS, and several other organizations that defined the tone of the Conference. The World Youth Alliance recognizes that advancements in science must go hand-in-hand with a culture that affirms the critical importance of responsible choices. The overwhelming prevalence of the Condomize! Campaign palpably undermined the value of building such a culture. With over one million condoms dispensed at the Conference and the constant loudspeaker announcements encouraging participants to “Live, Love, Condomize,” it was readily apparent that the message of the International AIDS Conference could be boiled down to one word—condoms. If we are to truly “turn the tide together” we need to do more than ensure that condoms are available in every corner of the world.
Much of the task of the Conference focused on the importance of meeting the needs of persons in vulnerable situations. These groups have been identified by UNAIDS as men who have sex with men, drug users, sex workers, and prisoners. It is clear that compassionate and evidence-based policies are needed to combat the spread of the disease in these high-risk populations; however, the emphasis on the provision of commodities (e.g., condoms and clean needles) is misguided and will not solve the problem. In tandem with the emphasis on commodities, frequent calls were made to recognize sex work as a legitimate profession. Such policies fail to take into account that in and of itself sex work denigrates the person, and that a person-centered response demands the implementation of policies designed to elevate the person out of harmful circumstances.
The World Youth Alliance participated in a remarkable event hosted by AVSI and Caritas Internationalis, entitled “Born FREE from HIV: PMTCT Lesson Learned from Uganda”. This event highlighted the great success northern Uganda has experienced in the reduction of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS thanks to a community-based method. As stated by Jackie Aldrette, on behalf of AVSI Foundation, “The answer is more than just medicine, because this disease is more than just medical…People need to be accompanied and looked at with love, because in front of a disease such as AIDS, people need to be helped to reawaken their reason to live, to work and to struggle for something good.” WYA North America Director of Operations, Emily Matich, and Director of Advocacy, Elyssa Koren, spoke about the importance of cultivating a culture of responsibility to ensure that those babies who are born free from HIV are able to stay risk-free throughout their lives. The message of WYA is one of hope—we recognize that young people around the world are ready and willing to engage in a culture that sees the value of responsible choices and that celebrates the inherent dignity of every person.
To watch the AVSI minifim on northern Uganda click here.