Why protecting humans rights is critical to achieving an AIDS-free generation

December 14, 2015, 7:09am

By Amb. Deborah L. Birx, M.D., Huff Post Blog
Photo: Flickr

On Human Rights Day, we join the global community in recommitting to protecting the human rights of all people. The protection of human rights provides the foundation for ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, a global goal the world set this past September.

When human rights are valued, promoted, and preserved, people have the ability to access HIV/AIDS or other health services without the fear of facing stigma or discrimination. But when any member of a community is stigmatized or discriminated against, the health and human dignity of everyone in that community is at risk. The distinction could not be starker.

Together, we have made tremendous progress in the global HIV/AIDS response. New HIV infections have fallen by 35 percent since 2000, including by 58 percent among children. AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since their peak in 2004. And 15.8 million people living with HIV are now accessing life-saving antiretroviral treatment worldwide.

The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is proud of its contributions to this progress. As President Obama announced last week, on World AIDS Day, PEPFAR is currently supporting life-saving treatment for 9.5 million people - more than four times as many as at the start of his administration. We are well on track to reach the bold new HIV prevention and treatment targets that the president launched in September.

Yet the work is far from done, and the next five years are crucial. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has laid out two very different paths - pursue "business as usual" and risk a cumulative 100 million infections by 2030, or fast-track our efforts to change the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The choice is clear, and the time to act is now.

We have everything we need to end this epidemic -- the science, tools, and common vision. But success demands that the protection of human rights remains at the core of our work. Around the globe - including in the United States -- stigma and discrimination still threaten key affected populations, including men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, people who inject drugs, and women.

These violations, in turn, impede their access to and retention in HIV/AIDS services and, ultimately, produce poorer health outcomes. PEPFAR is working to ensure non-discriminatory access to HIV/AIDS services for all individuals in need, including through our recent partnership with the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

Adolescent girls and young women are also particularly affected, accounting for more than 1,000 new HIV infections each day. PEPFAR and a number of private sector partners are committed to helping change this through the DREAMS partnership, which is supporting adolescent girls and young women to be Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe. DREAMS aims to achieve a 40 percent reduction in new HIV infections among adolescent girls and young women within the hardest hit areas of 10 sub-Saharan Africa countries by the end of 2017.

PEPFAR is also engaging and empowering civil society, including through our $10 million contribution over three years to the Robert Carr Civil Society Networks Fund. Since the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, civil society has been at the forefront of the response - demanding accountability, delivering life-saving services, and driving transformational change. Without civil society, we would never be where we are today, and its role now is as vital as ever.

Today, on Human Rights Day, we recommit to helping break down the barriers to achieving an AIDS-free generation. The next five years can put us on this path, but only if every person can access the HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment services they need. No one should be left behind, and no one should be relegated to the shadows. It is just that simple.