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Paris conference highlights Africa's AIDS progress, but fight is not over

Sibongile Tshabalala, deputy general secretary of South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), calls for more action at the Paris global conference on HIV science, Sunday 23 July 201s7 Christina Okello for RFI

Sub-Saharan Africa has emerged as an unlikely leader in the fight against HIV/Aids at the Paris AIDs' conference. But activists say more must be done.

In a region once ravaged by the disease, the rate of new infections in southern Africa has fallen by almost half in places like Swaziland, where one in three adults is HIV positive.

“If there is one region I’m really proud of it's Africa," Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, responsible for leading global efforts to end Aids, told RFI.

New research presented at the 9th International Aids Society conference on HIV science in Paris, shows that Swaziland is making great strides in tackling HIV/Aids, with a surge in the number of people getting tested and receiving treatment.

And not just Swaziland. "Today we are seeing in Uganda, a reduction by almost 50% of new infections, the same in Mozambique, the same in Swaziland, the same in Lesotho. South Africa 30%, nobody would have believed,” says Sidibé.

South Africa in the early 2000s was the epicenter of the epidemic -- 5.7 million people tested positive for HIV, more than any other country.

"At the time, people were dying on the ground, we were burying more than 600 people a day, so you can just imagine the number" Sibongile Tshabalala, of South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) told RFI.

Long way out of the shadows

Stigma attached to HIV and even denial on the part of South Africa's government that HIV really caused Aids, long confined the disease to the shadows and deprived populations of vital treatment.

Human rights activist Prudence Mabele became the first South African woman to publicly reveal her status at the age of 21, to break the stigma around HIV.

She went on to publicly stop her treatment in a defiant protest against the government's opposition to antiretroviral treatment.

"She stood there, and was bold enough to say: 'I cannot survive while my people are not surviving,' until Mandela himself went to her and said 'Prudence it’s enough now, you’re going to die: you better take your treatment, we’ll continue this fight while you’re taking your treatment'," explains Tshabalala, who was offered a platform at Sunday's opening ceremony to pay tribute to the work of Mabele, who passed away this month at the age of 45.

South Africa has come a long out of the shadows. Today, it's a global testing ground for treatment and prevention, including a study of an experimental HIV vaccine set to begin later this year.

Hopes of winning the 30-year scientific battle against the disease were raised on Monday when researchers revealed that a candidate vaccine appears to be working.

There was more good news too when it was reported that a 9-year-old South African girl infected with HIV had become the third child to beat the Aids virus into remission -- almost nine years after receiving anti-Aids drugs.

Cuts will cost lives

Activists though, are worried that these medical breakthroughs could be rolled back by "draconian" funding cuts to global Aids research announced by US President Donald Trump.

"Cuts to funding and research could deprive the 17 million people who are still in need of treatment vital access to drugs," Giovanna Rincon, president of the French Transgender Association, Acceptess-T, that campaigns for sex-workers living with HIV, told RFI.

Anti-Aids activists attack France's Health Minister Agnès Buzyn over cuts to aids research at the Paris Aids conference, Sunday 23 July, 2017 Christina Okello for RFI

Dozens of Aids activists disrupted the speech of France's Health Minister Agnès Buzyn at the opening of the conference, with slogans that read "Shame on Macron," and "No to budget cuts."

France is the world's third-largest contributor to funding on Aids, after the UK and the US, but some activists viewed President Emmanuel Macron's absence at Sunday's opening as a sign of his indifference.

No room for complacency

For Tshabalala of Treatment Action Campaign, Macron is not the problem.

“The progress is not going where it’s needed the most today," she says echoing the words of Nelson Mandela at the 2003 Aids summit.

"We're given antiretrovirals but there’s no psychological support, there’s no socio-psychological support that is coming after that."

And she refers specifically to the case of Prudence Mabele who died of Aids while on antiretroviral treatment.

"We want change, we want better drugs for TB, because Prudence she was affected by TB earlier this year. So it could be drug resistance: two drugs ARVs and TB drugs, they took over her lungs because she died of pneumonia."

For her and for others at the conference, the case of Prudence Mabele underscores the need to associate HIV science with cancer and genetic research to reduce the number of HIV-related deaths.

Expensive progress

But for Michel Sidibé of UNAIDS, progress has been made: “Africa is not anymore the epicenter," he says, pointing out that there has been a 60% increase in new infections in Russia during the last six years.

"We have today 19 million people on treatment and in 2003 in this same room when we were here in Paris, we were having only 4% of the people in need of treatment on treatment."

But this progress has created a 1.9 billion dollar deficit in Africa alone and 7 billion dollars globally.

"We need to share responsibility," he insists, at at time where 37% of Aids funding is now coming from developing countries’ budgets.

"If donors don’t come, we will lose all this investment. We have been doing so well for almost 30 years, we have changed the face of this epidemic," he says, confident that UNAIDS will reach its 2030 target of eradicating Aids altogether.

"It’s time to end the epidemic, and we can do it together, and we need funding."

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