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World AIDS Day 2010: Rates of new HIV infections are slowing, but what now?

Scores of cities and communities all over the world will dim the lights this December 1st to mark World AIDS Day as part of the Light for Rights campaign which focuses on human rights, HIV and AIDS. Significant progress has been made in advancing access to HIV prevention, treatment, support and care over the past ten years, but putting human rights approaches at the centre of the response is crucial to further progress. The 2010 Global Update on the AIDS Epidemic by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) shows that in 2009 the pace of new infections had declined by almost 20% compared to 1999, but still outpaces treatment success by two to one. There are still major gaps in the implementation of human rights commitments at national and regional levels according to the report. For many people living with HIV – and the people most affected by it – human rights can help to guarantee access to health services, work, education and community participation.

“Failure to protect the rights of sex workers, women, young people, people who use drugs or those in same sex relations significantly hampers our efforts to meet public health goals,” says Marcel van Soest, Executive Director of the World AIDS Campaign. “Where human rights are officially recognised as a priority and protected, people living with HIV and key populations are accessing necessary treatment, prevention, support and care services”.

“If young people see that HIV is stigmatised in their country they are less likely to get tested, educate themselves about prevention or seek treatment,” says Reshma Pattni, Program Director for the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS, “Though governments are making cuts for economic reasons, ensuring access to prevention, treatment, care and support services is important for a healthy young work force.”

The UNAIDS report tells us that HIV related travel restrictions, criminalization of same sex relations, and antiquated drug policies are creating obstacles to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. A number of countries -including the USA and China – have rolled back their HIV related travel restrictions but similar restrictions continue in 51 countries. 79 countries and territories still criminalize same sex sexual relations, with a staggering six countries retaining the possibility of applying the death penalty in such cases. More than 100 countries criminalize some aspect of sex work1.

“Promoting universal access requires an emphasis on women and girls. HIV-related programmes addressing women and girls are still notably lacking in a great many countries.” commented Mabel Bianco, President of FEIM and Coordinator of International Women's AIDS Caucus

"People living with HIV have a right to the highest attainable standard of health," says Rachel Ong, Chair of the Global Network of People Living with HIV (GNP+). "Guaranteeing this right and especially ensuring Universal Access to treatment, care, prevention and support for People living with HIV is a core component of any commitment in the response to HIV."

In China campaigners have faced human rights violations for voicing their concerns. Tian Xi, a young man who was infected with HIV through a blood transfusion, has been detained following his calls for compensation for himself and others. Such treatment of campaigners not only discourages efforts to raise awareness or to speak out, but is ultimately self-defeating insofar as it hampers efforts to reduce transmission and arrest the pandemic

“Prioritising the rights people need to avoid exposure to infection, enabling people living with HIV to live with respect and dignity and protecting the rights of those who are marginalized or vulnerable is really what we're talking about when we mention human rights approaches,” says Allyson Leacock, chair of the World AIDS Campaign's Global Steering Committee, “raising rights awareness among key populations – such as women, youth, people who use drugs – is essential to the future of the...

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