Every year on December 1, the global community comes together to commemorate World Aids Day. It is a day to reflect on the lives lost, and those forever changed, as a result of Aids. It is also an opportunity for us to acknowledge that 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV.
Today, we remember those whom we have lost, celebrate those lives saved in Uganda, and recommit to the continued fight against Aids. This year’s global theme is particularly applicable to Uganda: Getting to zero: Zero new infections. Zero discrimination. Zero Aids related deaths.
The world has made tremendous progress over the last 30 years through research and innovation in science. Thanks to these lessons, we can now look ahead to the achievable goal of an Aids-free generation. Achieving this goal is a shared responsibility, and everyone has a role to play – including the government of Uganda, religious leaders, scientists, cultural and community leaders, development partners and individual Ugandans.
Uganda’s initial response to the HIV epidemic was characterised by strong leadership from President Museveni, with all-inclusive support from all aspects of society. Early on in the epidemic, the coordinated response among the government, religious leaders, scientific experts, and cultural and community leaders turned Uganda into a global pioneer in national HIV response. It is time for Uganda’s leadership to once again come forward and demonstrate their personal commitment to help stop the increase in new HIV infections and to introduce and reinforce clear and consistent prevention messages backed by science.
In Uganda, unprotected sex and mother-to-child transmission account for the vast majority of HIV infections. This does not have to be the case. We each have the knowledge of the tools to take personal responsibility for our own health.
Knowing your HIV status is the first step to accessing treatment or to adopting prevention measures. You can celebrate World Aids Day by getting tested and encouraging your friends and family to do the same. Parents also have a role to play in preventing mother-to-child transmission. Simply by having an HIV test early during pregnancy, mothers can learn whether they need to access antiretroviral drugs. Fathers can play an important role by getting tested with their wives and encouraging them to seek regular antenatal care.
Men can also reduce risk of infection through safe male circumcision, low-cost procedure that reduces the risk of female-to-male transmission by more than 60 per cent when coupled with behaviour changes. Of course, all of these tools must be combined with individual behaviour change which includes limiting unprotected sexual behavior and multiple, concurrent sexual partnerships. Consistent and correct male and female condom use, reduces the risk of infection by more than 80 per cent even in couples where one partner is HIV positive and the other is negative.
For Ugandans living with HIV, proper treatment requires reliable access to healthcare. While this has always been the case, improved access to treatment now has a new urgency: a ground breaking study released last year showed that effective treatment of a person living with HIV reduced the risk of transmission to partners by 96 per cent. So for these reasons and more, the government of Uganda must take accountability for the health of its citizens and increase the domestic funding devoted to HIV/AIDS care. Uganda funds 11 per cent of the national HIV efforts, leaving the response fragmented, unsustainable and highly dependent on foreign aid.
A key part of the domestic response must include investing in health workers. Currently, 42 per cent of positions in the national health system are vacant. By focusing on efficient use of financial resources and accountability, Uganda can maximise the impact of its investments to save more lives.
There are now 1.4 million people infected with HIV in Uganda - and that number increases by 145,000 infections every year. 51 per cent of new HIV infections have occurred in the last five years alone. Every year, over 16,000 Ugandan babies start their lives already infected with HIV. While the rates of infection increase, only 62 per cent of eligible patients receive access to treatment.
As we look to the future, the international community remains committed to working in partnership with Uganda on an effective, sustainable, long-term HIV response that eliminates new HIV infections. On World Aids Day 2012, be assured that the people of the United States, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark and the United Kingdom stand united with the people of Uganda as we build on our past successes and meet our shared responsibility to create an Aids-free generation. Working together, we can achieve the goal of getting to zero: Zero new infections. Zero discrimination. Zero Aids related deaths.
Scott DeLisi is the US Ambassador to Uganda.Swedish Ambassador Urban Andersson, British High Commissioner Alison Blackburne, Irish Ambassador Anne Webster Ambassador of Denmark Dan E. Frederiksen also contributed to this opinion.