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Sounding the warning bell amid optimism at global HIV response

Criminalization and suppression of human rights could take the HIV response back to the Dark Ages if we let it, notes International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The International HIV/AIDS Alliance warned that in the excitement over recent scientific advances there is a danger that one of the drivers of the epidemic – human rights violations – will be forgotten.

“We certainly don’t want to be a killjoy or the specter of the feast, and we should be proud of the fact that more than eight million people worldwide, many of them in some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, got the antiretroviral treatment that they needed last year,” said Alvaro Bermejo, executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. “But this year, we have witnessed some spine-chilling abuse of people most at risk of HIV, which carries a very real threat of setting back and progress made to date in stemming new infections.”

A recent report by The Global Commission on HIV and the Law found that 78 countries make same-sex activity a criminal offence, with penalties ranging from whipping to execution, including stoning in parts of Nigeria where Sharia law applies. The report also found that in more than 60 countries, it is a crime to expose another person to HIV or to transmit it, often leading to people not getting tested to ascertain their status.

Also, in many countries, the law dehumanizes those at highest risk of HIV, which can lead to them being excluded from health care and other services. In Myanmar, Malaysia and the Philippines, which is one of only seven countries listed by UNAIDS to have experienced a rising infection rate in 2010, people who use drugs are criminalized.

“It is only when human rights are placed at the core of national HIV programs that positive public health outcomes will be achieved. Without reducing the vulnerability of marginalized populations and addressing human rights violations against PLHIV, universal access will not be realized,” Bermejo said.

The International HIV/AIDS Alliance, which in 2011 reached approximately 2.8 million people through 39 organizations working to support community action on AIDS, is urging governments and donors to adopt “comprehensive and inclusive national responses” to HIV and AIDS by: ensuring that wider political, social and economic realities are considered when addressing HIV; creating an environment that respects, protects and promotes human rights, and allows PLHIV to participate in HIV responses; and to work towards access to prevention programs, particularly for most at-risk populations.

“Criminal laws and policies that target people based on their HIV status must be repealed. While we applaud the efforts of everyone involved in turning the tide on the epidemic, let’s not get overly complacent that our work here is done,” Bermejo said. “More than seven million people still need access to ART, for example, and the latest UNAIDS data indicates that we have not seen a significant decrease in the number of new infections or AIDS-related deaths in the past years. We simply can’t afford to stop now.

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