Thursday, May 11, 2006

HIV AIDS: Spread the virus!

There is a widespread expression in the world of campaigners: when we’re captivated by a new issue and want to do something about it, we say “I’ve caught the [issue] virus”. For example last year, after the Pew Charitable Trusts asked us at the Varda Group to look into the issue of shark conservation, I told many friends and colleagues that the Shark virus had caught me by surprise; similarly as soon as I left Greenpeace in 2002 someone at the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave me the Fight-Tobacco virus.

I returned today from Stockholm, where UNAIDS gave me the opportunity to participate in a meeting aiming at building a vocal constituency around HIV prevention. Under the auspices of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Agency, a wide range of participants including representatives from national governments, international organizations, civil society (especially people living with HIV), media and trade unions met together in Stockholm for a day and a half to discuss ways to stand up for HIV prevention and increase effective advocacy for the issue as part of the efforts towards achieving universal access to prevention, treatment, care and support.

Although the AIDS era is 25 years old (there is now an entire generation that has not known the world without AIDS), the pandemic continues to grow at an alarming rate. In particular, it is affecting women and girls in ever greater numbers.

Nearly 6000 people are being infected everyday (yes, six thousand e-v-e-r-y-d-a-y); so you don’t need a PhD in mathematics to know that the future does not look good.

Rarely has an issue mobilised so much energy, so many people and so much money in advocacy and education. Thanks to this there are some good success stories (in Western Europe, North America, but also Thailand and Brazil for example), but HIV nevertheless continues to grow. In part this is because the HIV issue has a lot to do with attitudes – especially attitudes to sex and gender relations and also attitudes to those who are directly affected.

In this regard there are a lot of similarities with the current state of the global environmental policy deadlock, where a lot is being said about the imperative need to urgently come to grips with the unsustainable consumption patterns of the Global North (if we want the rest of the world to take seriously the challenges of biodiversity conservation), but too little is being done about it, because it's hard to change deeply rooted attitudes to consumption and because politicians fear that they could lose popular votes if they shake things up too quickly. (Even after hearing many times my friend Sylvia Earle say that 90% of the great fish have already disappeared, I need to make real efforts to resist to a good tuna sushi, I must confess! Food and sex have got something in common, in that it's hard to have an entirely rational approach to them; otherwise we would be much more healthy in many ways).

It is in this context that UNAIDS asked me to share views and recommendations from my perspective, as someone who has been engaged in many advocacy campaigns in other fields all his life. They wanted to hear from a campaigner who had a distance from the AIDS issue. From feedback received, I think I was able to bring some fresh air with a perspective that was new to at least some of the participants.

However, the AIDS issue is so compelling that it is hard to keep a distance from it for very long.

You can turn up and say (as I did at the beginning of the meeting) that you are coming and expressing yourself “from the side”. But after interacting and talking with people who have dedicated their lives to the AIDS issue (including people living with HIV), by the time you leave the meeting, you can no longer stay on the side.

I came there as an advocacy expert bringing an outsider's perspective (although of course I was not completely ignorant on the issue before), and I left the place with a very strong sense of commitment.

It is my understanding that UNAIDS tried to get more campaigners like me coming “from the side” to the Stockholm meeting, but I was the only one who could make it (I’m not throwing a stone at anyone; we’re all very busy, and it was luck that I was available this week).

I now feel compelled to share my Stockholm experience with colleagues and friends from all walks of activism to help UNAIDS build a wider constituency for HIV prevention.

If UNAIDS can spread the HIV Prevention Campaign virus as they have done with me, it can really make a difference.

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