On the occasion of World AIDS Day 2021, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners came together at a special event in Geneva, Switzerland, to highlight the urgent need to end the economic, social, cultural and legal inequalities that drive the AIDS pandemic and other pandemics around the world.
“We are issuing an urgent warning. Only by moving fast to end the inequalities that drive the AIDS pandemic can we overcome it,” said Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS. “World leaders must work together urgently to tackle the challenges head-on. I urge you: be courageous in matching words with deeds. It is outrageous that every minute that passes, we lose a precious life to AIDS. We don’t have time to waste.”
The world is off track from delivering on the shared commitment to end AIDS by 2030. In 2020 there were 37.7 million people living with HIV, 1.5 million new HIV infections and 680 000 AIDS-related deaths. Around 65% of HIV infections globally were among key populations, including sex workers and their clients, gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs and transgender people, and their sexual partners.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of the populations most at risk were not being reached with HIV testing, prevention and care services,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “The pandemic has made things worse, with the disruption of essential health services, and the increased vulnerability of people with HIV to COVID-19. Like COVID-19, we have all the tools to end the AIDS epidemic, if we use them well. This World AIDS Day, we renew our call on all countries to use every tool in the toolbox to narrow inequalities, prevent HIV infections, save lives and end the AIDS epidemic.”
If the world does not tackle discrimination and inequalities, UNAIDS and WHO warn that the next decade could see 7.7 million AIDS-related deaths.
A powerful video narrated by Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, and Ms Byanyima was screened at the event demonstrating the disturbing parallels between access to HIV treatment and access to COVID-19 vaccines. Between 1997 and 2006, it is estimated that 12 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses in low- and middle-income countries as the price of medicines rendered them out of reach for many of the countries most affected by HIV. Today, 10 million people around the world still do not have access to the life-saving HIV medicines. The Duke of Sussex urged the world to learn from the history of AIDS and overcome the inequitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and to ensure that new HIV medicines and technologies are available to all.
A letter from the Duke of Sussex to WHO and UNAIDS was read out, in which he commemorated the 40 years of AIDS and expressed his gratitude for the work accomplished to date. In the letter he stressed the need for COVID-19 vaccine equity, drawing from the lessons learned from HIV.
Speakers highlighted the impact of HIV on young people. “Young people continue to be stigmatized, especially those in key populations, and inequalities continue to compromise the quality of our lives,” said Joyce Ouma, from the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV.
“Young people are the future of nations and the cornerstone of the global AIDS response,” said Anutin Charnvirakul, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Public Health, Thailand. “Eradicating all kinds of stigma must be our full global commitment with immediate action.”
During the event, the participants commemorated the lives of the 36 million people who have died from AIDS since the start of the pandemic and highlighted the urgent need to do more for the people most affected by HIV.
The Ambassador of Namibia, Julia Imene-Chanduru, representing the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board Chair, said, “AIDS remains an emergency that we must not forget in our response to COVID-19.”
Speakers urged all countries, partners and civil society to be bold in taking forward the commitment made in the Political Declaration on AIDS adopted at the 2021 United Nations High-Level Meeting on AIDS and in the Global AIDS Strategy 2021–2026: End Inequalities, End AIDS, both having ending inequalities at their core.
“We can see the importance of UNAIDS’ strategy, with an emphasis on ending inequalities,” said Stephanie Seydoux, French Ambassador for Global Health. “This is what allows us to make progress in the fight against this pandemic, and to ensure health for everyone.”
“We know how to beat AIDS and we know how to beat pandemics,” added Ms Byanyima. “The policies to address the inequalities standing in the way of progress can be implemented, but they require leaders to step up and be bold.”