By Terhi Heinasmaki, IFRC Asia Pacific zone health coordinator
The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement was well represented at the recent 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP) held in Busan, the Republic of Korea, from August 26th - 30th. A total of twelve National Societies from the Asia Pacific participated in the event, which is recognised as the regions’ most important forum on HIV. The theme for ICAAP this year was ‘Diverse Voices, United Action’ and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) used the conference as an opportunity to call upon governments in Asia and the Pacific to provide universal, non-politicized and anonymous access to HIV testing as a key step towards the United Nation’s ‘Getting to Zero’ strategy.
While the HIV epidemic is stabilising in Asia Pacific, meaning less new infections and deaths, some groups are clearly more in danger. The virus is gaining more ground in men who have sex with men (MSM) and injecting drug users (IDU).
HIV and AIDS is not just a health issue, it is also a social and political one. If prevention efforts with these high risk groups fail, it will be very hard to reach one of the global goal of zero new infections in the fight against HIV.
Drug use is one of the main risk behaviors fuelling the HIV epidemic in Cambodia. Currently 24% of the injecting drug users live with HIV, mostly contracted through sharing dirty needles. The Cambodian Red Cross is working with drug users in two drug rehabilitation centers. They have trained 76 former drug users as trainers to sensitize out-of-school youth about HIV and the dangers of drug use. They also provide peer-support to active drug users in the centers.
Va Sopheak, the head of communicable diseases subdivision in the Cambodian Red Cross, said: “We will continue the work with drug users in the future and seek funding from the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.”
The last decade has revolutionised the life of people living with HIV (PLHIV). With the development of antiretroviral medication HIV/AIDS can be controlled like any other chronic illness such as diabetes. The global target of no AIDS-related deaths can be reached if HIV funding is able to cover the expenses. Unfortunately only one third of the need is currently covered. Asian countries have increased their domestic contribution to fund HIV programmes, but not enough.
People living with HIV want to have a say in HIV programming, as it directly impacts their lives. Several National Societies around Asia Pacific empower effected people through their HIV work. Amongst these, the Chinese Red Cross facilitates access to antiretroviral treatment and Lao Red Cross considers PLHIV in planning and implementation of projects.
The third global target, which calls for no stigma and discrimination, is the hardest to reach. Dr Jamal Shah from the IFRC’s Pakistan delegation concludes: “People living with HIV are facing stigma in every walk of life be it a social gathering, religious ceremony or a family event.” A new report which Dr Shah co-authored in Pakistan, showed that out of the 910 people studied more than one third had been verbally insulted and 15% were denied sexual and reproductive health services.
Director of the Thai Red Cross AIDS Research Centre, Professor Praphan Phanuphak was one of the plenary speakers in ICAAP. “The most important, exciting message is that treatment is prevention – that AIDS treatment can prevent HIV spreading,” he said. “The sooner a person is treated, that person, after six months of successful treatment, will no longer be able to transmit the infection.”
To commemorate almost three decades of involvement of Thai Red Cross in HIV programming , a short film, Towards zero: HIV and the Red Cross in Thailand, premiered at ICAAP. Personal testimonies of people who are living with HIV point out that discrimination is causing them more problems than the virus itself. But people living with HIV are not giving in to stigma. As Ms Pattaraporn Soiysongun puts it: “I want people without HIV to accept people with HIV.”