As the 8th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (8th ICAAP) draws to a close, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has renewed its pledge to increase the number of people covered by its HIV programmes worldwide by at least 100 per cent.
The pledge is in line with targets proposed by a new Global Red Cross Red Crescent Alliance on HIV.
“Our goal is to bring more focus to our collective work and to scale up and tackle HIV where vulnerability is highest,” explains Glenn King, the International Federation’s HIV coordinator for the Asia Pacific region.
“This also means doing more to make sure that our volunteer based work at the grass roots level is reflected in national, regional and global responses to the HIV pandemic.”
One of the central themes of ICAAP has been around the need for committed leadership and the building of stronger partnerships, among all stakeholders, including governments, NGOs, scientists and people living with HIV.
The Asia Pacific Regional Director of UNAIDS, Prasada Rao, expressed concern that too many AIDS programmes in Asia were unsustainable due to their over reliance on external funding. He also said that national governments needed to commit more resources to scaling up programmes that address the prevention and spread of the disease.
An estimated 5.4 million people are infected with HIV in the Asia Pacific region and trends indicate that the pandemic is continuing to escalate, with approximately one million new infections in the last two years.
Changing social trends and risky behaviour patterns threaten to increase the spread of the virus.
Some countries, such as China, are seeing an increase in infection rates among men having sex with men, while in others countries, the incidence of married women who have contracted HIV from their husbands has increased significantly.
The rising impact of the pandemic on women was high on the agenda at ICAAP. Women have a greater biological vulnerability, while their role in society often makes them increasingly vulnerable to HIV as well. Socially, women have fewer rights, they are frequently forced into early sexual activity, they’re often unable to insist on protecting themselves, and may suffer sexual violence and exploitation.
Empowering women lies at the heart of the Red Cross Red Crescent strategy to tackle HIV. “The picture is clear, we will not make a real dent in the HIV epidemic unless we get really serious about tackling the vulnerability of women and girls,” explains Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the International Federation’s special representative on HIV and AIDS.
In Sri Lanka, the International Federation is supporting a Red Cross Society HIV awareness project in the highland Tea Estates of Nuwara Eliya and Badulla.
“The majority of estate workers are women and they are particularly vulnerable as alcoholism, sexual harassment, and casual sex is reported to be common, while awareness levels about HIV are low,” explains Dr. Lanka J. Dissanayake, the executive director for health at the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.
With increasing numbers of young men migrating from the estates to the main cities of Sri Lanka in search of work, the risk of these men contracting HIV and then transmitting it when they return home is high.
Despite Sri Lanka’s low prevalence rate, the risk factors that could lead to a rapid increase in the spread of HIV remain high. Gender inequity, work related migration, internal population displacements, commercial sex, lack of awareness and the stigmatization of people living with HIV are all potential threats.
In South Asia, the Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and India plan to come together in a common effort to accelerate efforts to prevent further infections, expand care, treatment, and support for people living with HIV and reduce the stigma and discrimination surrounding the disease.
The International Federation will also be looking to build greater collaboration with national health authorities and bodies such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation.