AMSTERDAM — The fight to end HIV/AIDS was given a boost by a star-studded week of presentations, panel sessions and the occasional protest at this year’s International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. However, tensions within the community remain, and with few new funding pledges announced, there are questions about how to translate strong rhetoric into action.
Some 16,000 stakeholders from more than 160 countries gathered in the Dutch capital last week for AIDS 2018, the conference’s 22nd edition and one of the biggest events in the global health calendar, featuring sessions on the latest HIV science, policy, and practice.
The week-long event was awash with celebrities including Elton John, Charlize Theron, and the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry, as well as former United States President Bill Clinton, who gave the keynote speech at the closing plenary. The heads of the world’s major health donors, notably U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Global Fund to Fight, AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, World Health Organization and Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS were also in attendance.
Held under the theme of “Breaking Barriers, Building Bridges,” the real story of this year’s conference was the growing realization that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is in crisis, with 1.8 million new infections in 2017. There are also alarming spikes in new HIV cases among key groups including adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa and drug users in eastern Europe and parts of Asia, according to recent figures from UNAIDS. At the same time, development assistance for HIV dropped $3 billion between 2012 and 2017, according to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
“The feel is definitely less congratulatory than past conferences and more sobering,” Rachel Baggaley, coordinator for HIV prevention and testing at WHO, told Devex, but added that it was good to see the community responding with force. The activist spirit which has defined the fight against AIDS in the past was never far away, she noted, with many sessions interrupted by campaigners.
“It is very positive to see the AIDS movement hasn’t gone away … I went feeling rather down and have come away challenged and inspired; there’s a lot of things we must do and a lot of people who continue to take this [AIDS agenda] forward,” she said.
One protest challenged the leadership of the U.N.’s dedicated AIDS agency, UNAIDS, with more than 20 female campaigners interrupting Executive Director Michel Sidibé — who has been criticized for his response to a sexual harassment scandal — during his address on stage at the opening plenary. Sidibé insists he has made changes and has resisted calls to step down, but his presence was a source of controversy.
In terms of funding, the conference saw the launch of the new $1.2 billion MenStar coalition to expand HIV services for men and boys, and £6 million ($7.87 million) in new funding from the U.K. government for grassroots HIV groups, provided through the Robert Carr Fund. The real test, however, will be next year’s Global Fund replenishment in France.
The key now will be turning the strong rhetoric and passion seen throughout AIDS 2018 into action on the ground, according to youth HIV activist Mercy Ngulube.
“We are all going to build bridges this week … but where is your bridge going to lead us? Don’t let your bridge be a bridge to nowhere,” she said during the opening plenary.
A Devex team was on the ground throughout the week and rounds up the key takeaways.
1. Target key populations
Attendees agreed that, without drastic change, the world will see global HIV targets missed and a possible resurgence of the epidemic. But Peter Piot, founding executive director of UNAIDS and now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned the targets themselves could leave key populations even further behind.
Speaking on Thursday, Piot reminded the audience that the 90-90-90 targets set by UNAIDS in 2014 will miss 27 percent of HIV patients. The framework calls for countries to get 90 percent of people living with HIV diagnosed; 90 percent of those diagnosed to be accessing treatment; and 90 percent of people on treatment to have suppressed viral loads by 2020.
“The 90-90-90 targets are actually 90-81-73,” he said, adding that “what the future of the epidemic is going to be determined by is the 10-10-10” — those not hit by the targets.
The 10-10-10 is likely to be made up of key populations including sex workers, men who have sex with men, LGBTI groups, people who inject drugs, and young people — all of whom are less likely to access HIV services due to social stigma, discrimination, criminalization, and other barriers, Piot said. These groups currently account for 47 percent of people with new infections, according to UNAIDS data.
Reaching these key populations was high on the agenda last week. Dudu Dlamini, a campaigner for sex workers’ health and rights who was awarded the Prudence Mabele prize for HIV activism during the conference, spoke to Devex about the need to decriminalize sex work in order to remove barriers to HIV services for sex workers.
Leading HIV scientists also put out a statement in the Journal of the International AIDS Society about laws that criminalize people with HIV for not disclosing their status and for exposing or transmitting the disease. Such laws, which exist in 68 countries, “have not always been guided by the best available scientific and medical evidence,” it said, and when used inappropriately can reinforce stigma and undermine efforts to fight the disease.
2. Prevention pay off
With new infections standing at 1.8 million last year, the recent UNAIDS report describes a “prevention crisis.” Traditionally, prevention has received only a tiny proportion of HIV funding, with the bulk going toward treatment. But there was a new buzz around the prevention agenda at this year’s event, in part driven by excitement around oral pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, which can prevent HIV infection among those at high risk. The antiretroviral medication has been successfully rolled out in North America, western Europe, and Australia, and has been shown to help reduce new infections among men who have sex with men.
WHO’s Baggaley said PrEP had “energized the prevention agenda.” However, questions remain about the feasibility of rolling it out in low-income countries, and about its efficacy for women.
“There is a prevention crisis and we need to find better ways of addressing it,” said Christine Stegling, executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. But while PrEP is a promising tool, a full approach to prevention needs to include a range of methods, combined with interventions that tackle human rights issues and gender inequality, she said.
3. A youth bulge
It was impossible to miss the strong youth presence at this year’s AIDS conference, which organizers said had a larger number of young people attending than ever before, and featured dozens of youth-focused events. This is linked to a growing recognition that adolescents face a disproportionately high risk of becoming infected with HIV, especially in Africa where the population is set to rapidly increase, and where new infection rates are on the rise among young people.
Ugandan youth advocate Brian Ahimbisibwe, a volunteer ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, said: “Without the youth, the future of all these conferences, and more importantly [of] services and programs, [is] compromised.”
However, 28-year-old Tikhala Itaye, co-founder of women’s rights group Her Liberty in Malawi, said the youth voice had not been fully integrated and that young people were still being “talked at” during many of the sessions, as opposed to being listened to.
“There’s now acceptance that young people need to be at the center … they do have the demographic weight and power to influence issues around HIV,” she said, but “you still find the different youth events happening in different rooms … Why aren’t we all coming together as one to build the bridges and have a global voice?”
4. The need for integration
A number of sessions talked about the need to integrate HIV programming, which has traditionally been siloed due to having its own funding streams, into broader health care. This was a key message of The Lancet Commission report on strengthening the HIV response published ahead of the conference, and was also the message delivered by WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the opening plenary.
“We have not truly helped a child if we treat her for HIV, but do not vaccinate her against measles. We have not truly helped a gay man if we give him PrEP but leave his depression untreated … Universal health coverage means ensuring all people have access to all the services they need, for all diseases and conditions,” he said.
Baggaley said integrating HIV into the broader health agenda posed both “an opportunity and also a challenge and risk for those populations most marginalized,” explaining that key populations currently served by externally funded nonstate health services could see their assistance diminished under UHC if the country in question did not believe UHC includes key populations or had punitive laws against gay men or sex workers, for example.
There was much discussion around the need to combine HIV and tuberculosis efforts, especially in the run up to the first U.N. high-level TB event in September. TB is the number one killer of people with HIV, who are up to 50 times more likely to develop it, according to WHO.
Speaking in between interruptions from the crowd, former U.S. President Clinton highlighted the need to address HIV and TB in tandem during the closing plenary and called on world leaders, notably India which has the highest TB burden, to attend the upcoming U.N. TB meeting.
“If you think … anyone ..that we can possibly bring the developing world to where we want it to be by abandoning the fight against HIV/AIDS and the collateral struggle against TB, you need to think again,” he said.
New findings from the Sustainable East Africa Research in Community Health program, presented during the conference, showed positive results from a community-based program which combined HIV testing and treatment with other diseases including TB, diabetes, and hypertension. The findings of a three-year randomized controlled trial in Kenya and Uganda showed that communities receiving testing and care for HIV alongside related conditions saw nearly 60 percent fewer new TB cases among HIV-infected people and that hypertension control improved by 26 percent.
5. Medical developments
Concerns about GlaxoSmithKline’s so-called “wonder drug” dolutegravir, which a study recently suggested might be linked to serious birth defects among children in Botswana, sparked debate amongst conference goers about whether potential mothers should be prescribed the drug.
WHO already advises that women of childbearing age wishing to take the antiretroviral have access to effective contraception, and will be re-evaluating its guidance as new evidence emerges, Baggaley told Devex. But there are concerns the agency could introduce blanket restrictions for women of childbearing age, which would force them to take other antiretroviral drugs that have worse side effects. The controversy could also lead to delays in the rollout of other forms of the drug, such as a pediatric version.
The conference also featured new data from the APPROACH study, which is evaluating the safety of several different HIV vaccines currently undergoing clinical trials in the U.S., East Africa, South Africa, and Thailand — but researchers admitted a vaccine will take years to develop.
6. The Trump effect
The shadow of U.S. President Donald Trump’s beefed-up “global gag rule,” otherwise known as the Mexico City Policy, loomed large over the conference, and a number of sessions discussed how it is negatively affecting HIV programs. Unlike previous iterations of the policy — which restricts U.S. funding to non-U.S. organizations that offer services related to abortion — Trump’s version is applied to almost all U.S. global health assistance, including PEPFAR.
Santos Simione from AMODEFA, an NGO that offers sexual health and HIV services in Mozambique, said his organization had lost U.S. funding due to the gag rule and was forced to close half of its youth clinics, which offered sexual and reproductive health services alongside HIV testing, counseling, and antiretroviral therapy.
“We could not provide condoms … testing … we just stopped everything,” Simione said.
Participants also spoke of a chilling effect, whereby organizations have stopped offering services that may not actually be prohibited under the rule, and raised concerns about PEPFAR’s staying power within a hostile Trump administration.
Meanwhile, there was heated debate about arrangements for the next conference, which the International AIDS Society has said will take place in San Francisco, California, in 2020. The decision has been met with fierce opposition and threats to boycott the event from AIDS campaigners who say many key population groups affected by HIV will have difficulties attending due to strict immigration policies. In 2009, former U.S. President Barack Obama lifted a restriction banning people with HIV from entering the country, but sex workers and people who use drugs still face legal challenges entering.