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WHO Regional Director on scourges of HIV/AIDS

Dec 10, 2009, 12:55 PM

As part of the celebrations marking World AIDS Day, WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Louise Sambou has spoken of the effects of the pandemic. Below we reproduce the full text of the speech, entitled "Universal access and human rights."

With about 10% of the world population, the WHO African Region remains home to two-thirds of the global number of people living with HIV/AIDS. Of the 2.7 million new HIV infections that occurred worldwide in 2007, 1.9 million were in Africa. This situation calls for a renewal of our commitment to fight against HIV/AIDS and special attention to be given to HIV prevention.

The last two years have seen unprecedented progress in the expansion of health sector interventions for HIV prevention, treatment and care.

In one year, the total number of health facilities providing HIV testing and counselling services increased by 50% and innovative strategies enabled these services reach more than 17 million people, aged, 15 and above.

At the same time, over half a million HIV positive pregnant women, representing 45% of those in need, received anti-retroviral therapy in 2008 to prevent HIV transmission from mother-to-child, compared with 34% in 2007. About 3 million HIV-infected persons received anti-retroviral treatment in 2008, representing a coverage rate of 44%, compared with 33% in 2007.

It is encouraging to note that women represent 64% of the total number of beneficiaries of antiretroviral treatment. This demonstrates the commitment of governments, the people, civil society and development partners involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

In spite of these encouraging trends, however, a lot more needs to be done. Comprehensive knowledge of HIV/AIDS is still limited and knowledge of the HIV status remains low. In addition, more than half of the people in need do not access the life saving drugs and the majority of patients start treatment when they are already at advanced stages of AIDS. These are some of the challenges we need to urgently address if we are to make an impact in reversing the trend of the epidemic in the African region.

Heterosexual contact is the main mode of HIV transmission in sub Saharan Africa and we need to invest more in primary HIV prevention. I call upon health care workers at all levels to use every opportunity to counsel and encourage safe sex behaviours which include abstinence or delay of age at first sexual intercourse, faithfulness, and the correct and consistent use of condoms.

We need to intensify HIV prevention alongside treatment and care. We need to reach every district with a package of interventions that are known to be cost-effective. These include promoting healthier life style and behaviours, routine offer of HIV testing and counselling; screening for HIV in all pregnant women and administration of ARVs to eligible women to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV; offer safe male circumcision services in districts with high HIV prevalence and implement strategies for the control of TB/HIV co-infection.

As we strive to expand access to HIV prevention, treatment and care services, we need to work with and mobilise the communities to utilise these services and to adopt sexual behaviours that do not put them at risk of contracting HIV. I call upon everyone, and especially leadership at all levels to be more outspoken on issues of sexuality, particularly in relation to unsafe sex, which continues to be the main driver of HIV transmission in the African region.

As we reflect today on the theme of universal access and human rights, we note with concern that new HIV infections in our Region are disproportionately high among women and the youth. We are also concerned that stigma and discrimination continue to prevent affected populations from accessing the needed services.

Access to HIV prevention, treatment and care should be seen as a human right because it deeply affects people?s lives. I call upon the leadership in Africa to build a conducive environment by putting in place appropriate legislation, and enabling policies that promote universal access to health care. We should also identify cultural practices that contribute to the spread of HIV infection and work towards changing them.

Reversing the current trend of HIV/AIDS is possible in the African Region. But we need to accelerate the pace at which we are moving, while ensuring universal access to health care and preventing stigma and discrimination.