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UNAIDS calls on world leaders to end structural inequalities to tackle AIDS pandemic

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World AIDS Day comes every 1st December to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic and fight the stigmas that come with it. Theme of 2021: end inequalities, end AIDS, end pandemics.

After two years of living with the COVID-19, if there’s something we must have understood is that pandemics highlight the cracks in our system, including the ongoing inequalities. It could be seen in homeless people who didn’t have a place to quarantine and were therefore constantly exposed to the virus, in women for whom locking down with an abusive partner wasn’t an option, or in the BAME community who have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

World AIDS Day 2021 comes with a message of hope but also a wake-up call. World Health Organisations (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. Although the world has made significant progress in recent decades, important global targets for 2020 were not met. “It is still possible to end the epidemic by 2030,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. “But that will require stepped-up action and greater solidarity. To beat AIDS —and build resilience against the pandemics of tomorrow—we need collective action.”

UNAIDS, the UN programme designed to lead the global effort in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has developed a strategy over five years to tackle the inequalities and ending the pandemic. Their vision stands in ending gender inequalities and realising human rights, including the right to health, “calling upon all partners and stakeholders in the HIV response in every country to transform unequal gender norms and end stigma and discrimination,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization and chair of the UNAIDS Committee of Co-sponsoring Organizations. “For this strategy to be fully realised, WHO will continue to support all countries to strengthen health systems and especially primary health care, on the road towards universal health coverage.”

Ongoing inequalities

From its beginning, the HIV epidemic has represented an acute health inequality, affecting some key populations much more disproportionately. Those structural inequalities now stand in the way of ending the AIDS pandemic once and for all.

UNAIDS highlights that education, occupation, income, home, and community all have a direct impact on health and HIV outcomes. “The lower someone’s social and economic status, the poorer their health is likely to be,” they said. “Societal forces, such as discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation, add to the stress level of certain population groups.

”Sex workers, transgender people, men who have sex with other men, people who use drugs (particularly those who inject drugs) are subject to discrimination, violence and punitive legal and social environments, each of which contributes to HIV vulnerability. This key population and their sexual partners comprised an estimated approximately 62% of all new HIV infections in 2019, but represent a small fraction of the world’s population. In addition, structural gender inequalities and discrimination contribute to HIV vulnerability as well. Adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa are three times more likely to acquire HIV infection than male peers their own age.

35.000.000+ estimated number of people living with HIV in 2020

1.500.000 new infections in 2020

680.000 people died from HIV-related causes in 2020

73% of people living with HIV received lifelong antiretroviral therapy in 2020

UNAIDS strategy to tackle the pandemic by 2030 puts people at the centre and aims to unite all countries, communities and partners across and beyond the HIV response. They are calling for concrete actions to transform health and life outcomes for people living with and affected by HIV.

First of all, they ask for every country to have equitable and equal access to comprehensive people-centred HIV services. They also highlight that all legal and societal barriers to achieving HIV outcomes should be broken down. And then, they want to prioritise to fully resource and sustain HIV responses and integrate them into systems for health, social protection and humanitarian settings.“

This year, the world agreed on a bold plan that, if leaders fulfil it, will end AIDS by 2030,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima. “AIDS remains a pandemic, the red light is flashing and only by moving fast to end the inequalities that drive the pandemic can we overcome it. Where leaders are acting boldly and together, bringing together cutting-edge science, delivering services that meet all people’s needs, protecting human rights and sustaining adequate financing, AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are becoming rare. This is only the case in some places and for some people.”

Sources: UNAIDS, WHO, African Union, National Aids Trust

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