The HIV pandemic: time to recalibrate and target the weak spots

More than 15 000 researchers, activists and policymakers descend on Amsterdam this week for the 22nd International Aids Conference. Marcus Rose/IAS

HIV remains a global challenge. Between 36.7 million and 38.8 million people live with the disease worldwide. And more than 35 million have died of AIDS related causes since the start of the epidemic in the mid-1980s. Two years ago the International Aids Society and The Lancet put together a commission made up of a panel of experts to take stock and identify what the future response to HIV should be. The report is being released to coincide with the 22nd International Aids Conference in Amsterdam. The Conversation Africa’s Health and Medicine Editor Candice Bailey spoke to Head of the International AIDS Society Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, who also led the commission, about its report.

What have we learnt about the global HIV response in the last 30 years?

The world had an emergency on its hands 30 years ago with the arrival of HIV. A huge amount of effort was put into trying to find solutions. And there were some incredible breakthroughs. First was the miracle of lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, the biggest game changer over the last three decades. Great strides have been made in rolling out the treatment. UNAIDS tells us that 22 million people are currently on treatment. That’s truly remarkable.

But we’ve also learnt that relying on the current pace is insufficient. That’s clear from the figures. In some countries the incidence is rising, and in many parts of the world the incidence rate has stalled or plateaued. We are not seeing the downturn that we need to be able to reach the global goal of ending the HIV pandemic by 2030.

The biggest lesson we’ve learnt is that we need to reinvigorate the prevention message especially since we have new tools to combat HIV transmission in many different settings. This includes Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – a daily antiretroviral that’s given to people who have a high risk of contracting HIV to lower their chances of getting infected – as well as treatment as prevention, which involves giving people living with HIV antiretrovirals to suppress their viral loads.

For a sustainable response and looking forward to the next era, it will be important to position our responses to HIV within the broader health agenda. Patients don’t only have HIV, they have other issues. There are mental health needs and there are sexual and reproductive health needs, so HIV treatment and care must fit into that broader agenda. This will enable a more sustainable response.

This is a challenge in many parts of the world where HIV is in a siloed response and people are only treated by HIV specific services. There needs to be a service delivery model that considers the broader health agenda. This goes beyond integration. We need to think about where can we take the lessons from HIV into other diseases. In the case of HIV, person centred and community-based care has become critical to ensure people get access to treatment.

The message is simple: the epidemic is far from over and it’s not time to disengage. We’re here for the long haul. To ensure we have a sustainable approach we need to recalibrate.

The commission is calling for a new way of doing business that will seek common cause with other global health issues. We understand that the HIV response will need resources. This will be a great way to get a double bang for the buck.

What’s still going wrong?

In many regions we have left whole sectors of the population behind. These include men who have sex with men, women who trade sex and people who inject drugs. They aren’t getting proper services because of policy, prejudice and stigma.

And different regional pockets need particular attention. One is in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where there has been a 30% increase in new infections since 2010. This is particularly concerning. Its clear that whole regions are being left behind because of politics, denial and stigma.

Here the administrations are not doing the evidence based thing – they are failing their people and the response.

Another pocket is West and Central Africa. These are countries that are not reducing rates of infection as quickly as we had hoped, often due to limited resources. Nigeria, for example, needs help with the reduction of mother to child transmission.

These are areas that are going to need attention, help and encouragement.

But we don’t want to put out the notion that we are in trouble across the world.

In East and South Africa, for example, we have made significant gains. There is still a lot to be done but the trends are going in the right direction. In many ways South Africa really is a good news story because its administration and politics favour an enthusiastic response to do the right thing. Domestic funding around HIV has increased. South Africa still has the biggest number of people in the world living with HIV – 7.9 million according to the latest HSRC report. But the country is beginning to turn the ship around. That’s something we can be incredibly proud of.

There are, nevertheless, still pockets that need attention. For example, adolescent girls and young women under the age of 25 in KwaZulu-Natal are roughly three times more likely than men younger than 25 to be living with HIV. We have had them in our sights but we now need a concentrated effort to tackle HIV in this cohort otherwise we will miss the target.

We need to look at the evidence and where can we make an impact with integrated care. This would be through HIV programmes that are part of sexual and reproductive health along with economic empowerment initiatives such as getting girls to stay in school and making sure they have opportunities to make autonomous decisions about sexual and reproductive health.

Doing everything for everyone is a waste of money and time. We need to sharpen the tip of our response. We must put our responses where we get the biggest bang for buck and call on those resources that offer prevention and treatment.

What are the biggest challenges between now and 2030?

Resources are the constant challenge globally. We live in a world where politics is unpredictable. We need to constantly advocate for funding while diversifying funding opportunities.

The second challenge is stigma and discrimination. Policy and ideology that is counter productive also feeds into stigma and discrimination. We need to do to something about laws that criminalise behaviour, like sex work, and stigmas towards intravenous drug users, gay people and men who have sex with men. Decriminalising sex work in South Africa, for example, would go a long way to reduce stigma, enable services and help the public health approach.

Continuing to understand how to reach young women and girls and protect them socially and medically; those are also big challenges.

Finally, in South Africa there is a challenge to find men who are not in the health services and get them into care and onto treatment. We know that a suppressed viral load means no HIV transmission and so this should be on its agenda.

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