In the thirty-first year of the HIV epidemic, the 29th International AIDS Conference will be held July 22-27 in Washington D.C., America’s political and AIDS capital with the highest HIV infection rate in the country. As the largest gathering of those working in the field of HIV, the conference serves to engage local leaders and stakeholders around common strategies. As suggested by this year’s theme, “Turning the Tide Together,” we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the AIDS epidemic.
We cannot put an end to HIV, however, without prioritizing women. HIV is the number one cause of death among women of reproductive age worldwide. To effectively address the epidemic, women must be at the center of global policies and programs. Women have recently overtaken men as the majority of HIV-infected individuals around the world. 52% of the total global population living with HIV is female. In sub-Saharan Africa, women 15-24 years old are eight times more likely than men to be HIV-positive. This change in the pandemic’s nature mandates a new approach.
Thankfully, global health initiatives have recently shifted their attention to maternal and reproductive health. What they need to do now is integrate family planning and reproductive health services with other HIV interventions. Far too little emphasis has been given to the role that family planning can play in combating HIV. Sexual transmission is the leading cause of infection. Of the 1800 children who become infected with HIV every day, the majority are newborns. Children under 15 account for one in every seven new infections, mostly through mother-to-child transmission. The current lack of integration causes healthcare gaps that limit the efficacy of programs.
In addition to basic antenatal and post-partum care, HIV-positive women need access to HIV testing and other prevention interventions in sexual health services. These include counseling and contraception to help them avoid unwanted pregnancies as well as safe delivery practices and available breast-milk substitutes to avoid mother-to-child transmission.
We must address HIV prevention, treatment, and care; cancer screening and treatment; maternal health care; and family planning services together. At the 2011 Commission on the Status of Women, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé affirmed, “Research is showing that HIV may have a significant impact on maternal mortality. This tells us that we must work for a unified health approach bringing maternal and child health and HIV programs together to work to achieve their common goal.” Only when leaders join Mr. Sidibé in his thinking will we begin to make real progress towards eliminating HIV/AIDS from the global agenda.
Some have already started to work to promote the integration of HIV/AIDS and reproductive health programs in the last few years. In 2011, UNAIDS created “The Global Plan towards the Elimination of New Infections among Children and Keeping Their Mothers Alive.” The plan aims to ensure that HIV, maternal health, newborn and child health, and family planning programs work together. That integration is crucial to achieving an “AIDS-free generation,” and we cannot afford to lose sight of it.
To help adopt this woman-centered approach, declare your commitment and sign the women’s declaration! http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1350/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=11068
Posted by Lucy Dicks-Mireaux, Public Policy Fellow