MEXICO CITY - The rain gods failed to dampen spirits of activists gathered at the old city centre of Zocalo to protest discrimination against those with the HIV virus. Hundreds of activists dressed in bright tribal costumes, women dressed as skeletons and one gay man wearing tights assembled ahead of the six-day XVII International AIDS conference, Aug. 3 to 8.
The conference -- at which some 22,000 scientists, policymakers and grassroots workers are expected -- is also the first such event ever to be held in Latin America and will focus on the region's issues.While big names like the Mexican President Felipe Calderon, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former U.S. president Bill Clinton and Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, are expected at the conference, perhaps for many 12-year old HIV positive Honduran Keren Dunaway Gonzalez will hold far more interest and curiosity.
"When I speak to all these people, I'll ask them to support the fight against this illness, to give us medicine because it's expensive and to campaign more so children don't get infected," she told AFP.
Organised by the homosexual community the first international March against Stigma, Discrimination and Homophobia -- about which the leaflet explained was a "march with no parties, sexual preferences and borderless" - - actually set the tone for the conference, HIV among the MSM (men having sex with men), is an overlooked epidemic.
Jorge Saavedra Lopez, heading Mexico's AIDS programme, the National Centre for Prevention and Control of HIV/AIDS (CENSIDA), speaking to media about AIDS and homosexuality, said it was still swept under the carpet in about half of all countries worldwide.
The same is true in Mexico City where people like Serena (name changed), who worked in a dental surgery where she was infected, has been "pushed out" by her family who "won't touch or eat food cooked [by her]". Serena even hides her condition from her neighbours, like Sandra (name changed) who refuses to tell her extended family that her husband -- an intravenous drug user, infected her. And transgender commercial sex workers like Angela and Diana, find living off their bodies their only option as society and authorities reject them.
Peter Piot, UNAIDS Executive Director, had earlier admitted at a media briefing that, "Stigma and discrimination is going to be a very important theme of this year's conference and which is going to come up again and again over the next few days." He was saying this in reference to MSM and AIDS.
Piot's remarks were reiterated by Craig McClure, Executive Director, International AIDS Society (IAS), stating that with homophobia growing, "stigma, discrimination and human rights would indeed be the focus of the conference."
A quarter of a century into the epidemic -- which exploded back in 1981 -- new figures from the U.N. show that for the second time running the number of people who are HIV positive has dropped, from around 33.2 million in 2006 to 33 million last year. The sobering fact remains that the deadly virus has killed some 25 million people already.
While three million people are receiving treatment, every day 7,400 new HIV infections crop up -- 2.7 million new infections a year.
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"When I started work on HIV and AIDS back in 1984, I assumed it would be over in ten years. Twenty-seven years later it is still growing," said a visibly tired Piot, running from one meeting after another to the run-up to the conference. While "we're seeing some real results" and have "come a long way", there is "not a single country that has been declared AIDS-free".
Admitting that MSM was indeed an understudied population "with a dearth of research and not enough data," Chris Beyrer, director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program, said new data suggested that the HIV/AIDS epidemic appeared to be expanding significantly among MSM, with the likelihood globally of such men having HIV at least 20 percent higher than in the general population.
Additionally, HIV prevention and care services were rarely extended to MSM, and the human rights of these men are regularly threatened. According to him, his centre could find only 83 studies from 38 countries on the theme.
Concern about the stigma attached to the disease was echoed from various quarters. In fact, for the first time, there will be a sex worker, who will speak at a plenary session.
Asked if that would have an impact, Piot said, "Setting this precedence is very important indeed to stomp off stigma and discrimination and while we see this openness at international conferences, we do not find the same replicated at national ones."
"The growing HIV epidemic among the MSM in Asia reminds me of the times when it was found only in the west and Australia. The history of AIDS is one of surprises; it pops up where and when you least expect and thus it's far too early to declare victory," said Piot.
"It is better to act now than pay later," he warned of countries and governments living in denial. "Stigma is a state of mind expressed sometimes in very violent ways, specially when it comes to MSMs." Migratory patterns, limited access to HIV and AIDS services, machismo and homophobia, he said made it difficult for such populations to seek treatment.
Talking about the archaic and colonial era law that criminalised homosexuality in many countries that were former British colonies, Piot lauded the efforts made by the National AIDS Control program of India in challenging Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which states: "Whosoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life or 10 years."
Agreeing that it requires "political courage", when asked if UNAIDS would advocate for the repeal of such a law existing in many Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Piot said he would find this extremely difficult to address as "passions fly high on such issues."
Copyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service.