Shishir Dahal

 The 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA) was  held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from the 4th till the 8th of December 2011. The theme of the conference was “Own, scale up and sustain”. It was reflected in the diverse range of keynote presentations, which offered thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas, experiences, and evidence in the field of HIV.

The opening plenary session was marked by the presence of former US president George W. Bush and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Mr. Bush got a heroic reception (including a standing ovation) from the crowd. Amnesty International may be calling for his arrest, but people here firmly believe that he saved millions of African lives with his global health initiative (PEPFAR). He never got recognition for this, certainly not the Nobel Peace Prize (while President Obama won one for doing nothing in 2009). This probably shows that the picture is never black or white, not even for George Bush himself. In his speech president Bush reminded the audience about the tough economic situation in the US. He urged the US Congress not to backtrack on financial commitments for global health, even in dire economic times like now, because according to him priorities must be made to save human lives. When he uttered the words” save human lives”, around 10000 participants applauded and kept doing so for a long time. So Bush got a very warm reception, one he might not even be used to (anymore) in his own country.

Mr Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, was more cautious in his remarks on the progress we have made so far. He said that the rate of new HIV infections has decreased to 25 per cent in many Sub-Saharan African countries, adding that this was encouraging. However, he complained that the gains remain fragile because “our  response to the epidemic will not be successful until prevention efforts are intensified.”

Another striking moment in the conference was when a group of activists marched forward and asked African governments and donors to take ownership of the AIDS epidemic. Participants expressed their solidarity with cheering and applauding. In the context of the Global fund cancellation of round 11 disbursements, this act of solidarity compelled Global Fund Deputy Executive Director Debrework Zewdie  to reassure those benefiting from the fund, saying, “Everyone who is on treatment funded by the Global Fund will stay on treatment”. She emphasized that the organization will continue to campaign, raise funds and put pressure on governments in both donor and recipient arenas. She reminded the donor countries that now is not the time to give low priority to the fight against AIDS, after having invested billions of dollars. She asked African governments to deliver on the Abuja commitment and start taking ownership.

All in all, Africa’s largest conference on HIV/AIDS brought together more than 10,000 participants from 103 countries. It ended after five days of extensive discussion with a renewed sense of hope and urgency to complete the unfinished business.

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