Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Celebrate World Aids Day By Dismantling UNAIDS

UNAIDS has never been shy about producing long and colourful documents about HIV/Aids and in the last couple of days they have released two; the Outlook Report 2010 takes a look back and compares the HIV pandemic of today with that of the mid 1990s; the second document is the yearly AIDS Epidemic Update, which I haven't had the strength to read yet.

The Outlook Report, like many of the various articles commenting on one or other of the reports, sometimes takes a rosy view of how the international community and the AIDS community have dealt with the pandemic. In the sense that things have moved on, and finding that you are HIV positive no longer has the significance it once had, they are right. We have come a long way in treating what was once an untreatable illness that would lead to a certain and very unpleasant death.

But the worrying thing is how the Outlook Report, like many UNAIDS and other reports in the past, talk about the importance of HIV prevention. It has been obvious that HIV prevention is so important that the amount of HIV money spent on it needs to be increased considerably. But the amount has gone down and the prevention programmes that get most of the money have little or no effect and have never had much effect.

Defenders of the disproportionate amount spent on treatment and care of HIV positive people are fond of pointing out that this shouldn't be an either/or debate. True, it shouldn't, both treatment and care on the one hand and prevention on the other should receive more funding than they presently receive and the funding should be more equitably divided. Treatment and care contribute a certain amount to HIV prevention but they are not the same as prevention and they will never contribute more than a certain amount. That's why there are five new infections for every two people put on antiretroviral treatment.

The report goes on to allude to the work that has been done to show that prevention programmes, such as they are, fail to target those most at risk in populations. Most of the money is spent on populations as a whole and very little on, for example, men who have sex with men, commercial sex workers, intravenous drug users, prison populations, fishing communities around Lake Victoria, mining communities and various others, who are very often at risk because of their occupation or lifestyle.

The report seems aware that HIV transmission is not primarily about individual behaviour and that there are different kinds of HIV epidemic in different countries and that some people are more at risk than others. It even seems cognizant of the fact that it is the circumstances in which people live that makes them more or less likely to become infected with HIV. But it hasn't made the leap to realizing that in some countries, especially developing countries, most people live in such circumstances. Not everyone is at equal risk of becoming infected but most people live in conditions that mean they are already at high risk of becoming infected or that they will one day be at high risk of becoming infected.

That makes it sound like HIV prevention is unlikely to ever have much success, but the opposite is true. Treatment and care have been to a large extent dominated by commercial interests. Products, processes and services have been developed, many by those who are in a position to profit from them. But prevention has been dominated by the party-political and pseudo-moral debates of political and religious leaders. Their aim is to further their own agenda, which are far from being concerned about millions of people becoming sick and dying.

Raising awareness about HIV, sexually transmitted infections, sexual health, reproductive health and anything else is good and will go a long way towards protecting people from a number of dangers. But good overall health, healthcare, nutrition, food security, education, infrastructure and many other benefits would give people the maximum protection, not just from HIV, but from other illnesses and ills.

And this brings us to another often repeated pronouncement made by various senior HIV/Aids experts. They like to deny that HIV funding has distorted health and development funding and disrupted more general programmes that aimed to benefit societies as a whole. HIV/Aids funding is not too high, it needs to be higher. But there needs to be a similar move to spend the money more equitably. HIV will not be eradicated without health services, education and other social services, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

So, spending money on all other areas of development will also contribute to the fight against HIV/Aids. But continuing to spend disproportionate amounts on HIV/Aids will not benefit the many other development issues that have been hijacked by numerous commercial and political interests. HIV treatment and care is just one of many health issues that the world faces but HIV prevention is about health, not disease. Therefore it has far broader significance and affects far more people than one single disease. In fact, it affects everyone.

Ultimately a self-serving and very expensive organisation, UNAIDS needs to be reabsorbed back into the overall agenda of public health, or some agenda that encompasses the health of everyone, not the sickness of a few. This is not to say that HIV positive people should not be entitled to treatment or care. Rather, they and all other sick people should be entitled to treatment and care. But people who are not sick should be enabled to stay that way. UNAIDS is good at diverting a lot of money for people once they are HIV positive but this is denying the right of HIV negative people to stay that way.


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