MEXICO CITY - Governments, international bodies and civil society renewed their commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS at the 17th International AIDS Conference, but they will have to work hard in order for this commitment to be reflected in concrete policies, especially on prevention.
This week nearly 25,000 delegates from all over the world presented their views on topics ranging from respect for the human rights of groups vulnerable to AIDS, including men who have sex with men, transgender persons and sex workers, to the scientific advances towards combating the disease and funding for treatment.
The conference, which ended Friday, was also a forum for reporting the obstacles to preventing new infections and reducing AIDS prevalence rates, such as lack of access to life-extending antiretroviral medications.
The delegates argued that their demands should be expressed in public policies and laws to combat the consequences of the pandemic, particularly in the area of preventing the spread of AIDS.
"The conference has been a good opportunity to propose different political and financial approaches to the problem of AIDS, but it has lacked concrete action on the issues of exactly what to do, and how," MarÃƒÂa Alemán, spokeswoman for the Nicaraguan non-governmental organisation (NGO) Puntos de Encuentro, told IPS.
"The conference is such a huge event that at times one can't see the complexity, the number of relationships that people make and the commitments that are made. Sometimes we aren't able to take in all the information about what is going on," Ana Mendoza of the Colombian foundation Mujer y Futuro, which works with forcibly displaced women, some of whom are living with HIV, told IPS.
One of the few concrete measures to emerge from the meeting was the agreement reached on Aug. 1 by the education and health ministers of Latin America and the Caribbean to teach sex education at all public schools, and to improve young people's access to healthcare.
"This historic agreement demonstrates the level of commitment in the region, and it is the community's responsibility to engage in social oversight to ensure that the agreement is fulfilled," the regional director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), CÃƒ©sar NÃƒÂºñez, told IPS.
According to UNAIDS, in 2007 there were 33 million HIV-positive people throughout the world. Of these, 1.8 million were in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil and Mexico are the countries with the largest numbers of people living with HIV in the region: 800,000 and 200,000, respectively.
"Those most at risk, including intravenous drug users, men who have sex with men and sex workers, must participate in public policy-making. The point is that greater participation (of these groups in their own countries) should come out of this conference, because no one knows more about the problem than they do," said the co-chair of the conference, Luis Soto-RamÃƒÂrez, at the final press conference.
The AIDS conference, which began Sunday night, is the first to be hosted by a Latin American country. The last such conference was held in Toronto, Canada in 2006, and the next will be in Vienna, Austria in 2010.
NGOs, especially those working with people living with HIV, do not want the results to be merely a list of good intentions, but are determined to see them take shape in specific policies.
At these meetings there tends to be a lot of rhetoric, but a lack of specific measures. And a great deal of the work depends on political decision-makers, said Leah Stephenson, adviser to the Canadian Treatment Action Council.
At the closing session, Rodrigo Olin, the Mexican head of the international NGO coalition Fuerza Joven, called for "AIDS not to be just a five-day issue," and urged governments to heed the demands that arose at the meeting.
The conference organisers regard the event as a success, in terms of information exchange, sharing points of view about the pandemic, and placing it squarely, albeit temporarily, at the centre of international attention. "The community (of governments, international agencies and NGOs) has been strengthened by the conference. We have seen leaders make political commitments," said Pedro Cahn, the other co-chair of the conference.
The community faces scientific, social, political and economic challenges, like the development of an anti-HIV vaccine, combating the increasing number of infections among women, and the high cost of antiretroviral therapy.
Two years ago, United Nations member countries committed themselves to achieving universal access to medical care and antiretroviral treatment by 2010. But according to U.N. projections, only 17 countries are on track to meet those goals.
We have to draw up a health agenda to confront HIV/AIDS and other diseases, said Michel Kazatchkine, the executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
The Global Fund was created in 2002 at the suggestion of the Group of Eight (G8) most powerful countries and a group of African nations. To date it has approved grants worth 11.3 billion dollars to over 550 programmes in 136 countries to support aggressive interventions against AIDS, TB and malaria.
In its eighth call for proposals, which ended Jul. 1, 97 countries asked for a total of 6.4 billion dollars to combat the three diseases. Applications by Latin American and Caribbean nations amounted to an unprecedented 600 million dollars, three times the sum requested in 2007.
In October, the Global Fund will start receiving proposals and applications for its ninth call for proposals.
"My assessment of the conference is that it was very positive, for Mexico and for Latin America as a whole. In Mexico the media coverage was so overwhelming that no campaign that we could launch would have achieved such a level of penetration," Jorge Saavedra, the head of the National Centre for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control, told IPS.
"But above and beyond than Mexico, the situation of Latin America was highlighted, because the epidemic in our region is normally overlooked, and that means the rest of the world does not pay it much attention or give it priority," he said.
Some countries in the region have taken steps in line with the discussions at the conference. For instance, the government of Panama issued a decree on Jul. 30 repealing a law that criminalised sex between men.
And Mexico City's leftwing government this week began distribution in public schools of a book about human sexuality, a move that has led to conflict with the national government and some conservative organisations.
"We will not let the discussions remain empty words. We are committed to following up the points expressed here," said Juan Hernández, head of Colectivo Sol, a Mexican NGO, and a member of the conference organising committee, on which several host country NGOs participated actively.
"These conferences are not attended by decision-makers with the authority to sign official agreements, except, in this case, the region's health and education ministers. The rest of the people who participated in this conference come out of a need to learn and share experiences. We hope that many of the recommendations made here will be taken up by the countries represented," Saavedra said.
The largest delegation was from the United States, with 5,078 representatives, followed by Mexico with 3,932, and Canada with 888. The country with the largest number of HIV-positive people in the world, South Africa, sent 608 delegates.
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