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HIV Remains A Health Concern: Civil Societies Speak Up For Upcoming High-Level Meeting On HIV/AIDS

“The HIV response has disappeared from the priorities of governments of the Pacific”. This is the consensus made by civil society organizations engaged in a series of consultations organized by the UNAIDS Pacific based in Suva. These consultations were part of the review of progress of current political commitments and advisories for the upcoming United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on HIV and AIDS that will place from 8 to 10 June 2021. The high-level meeting will review the progress made in reducing the impact of HIV since the last United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on HIV and AIDS in 2016 and the General Assembly expects to adopt a new political declaration to guide the future direction of the response. The high-level meeting will take place as the world marks 40 years since the first case of AIDS was reported and 25 years of UNAIDS.

The three series consultation comprised of organizations and individuals of young people, sex workers, People Living with HIV (PLHIV), LGBTI, injecting drug users and family health associations from Fiji, Cook Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu, Samoa and the Northern Pacific. While the participants are recognized the support given by donors and governments, this does not match the needs of vulnerable communities for accessing services. Government based HIV testing does not always provide the safe space needed for key populations to freely utilize services. One of the strong recommendations is for countries in the Pacific to adopt community-based and led testing.

“Legal barriers against LGBTI persons and sex workers causes stigma and discrimination especially when it comes to testing at government facilities”, says Cruella Tuinukuafe of the Tonga Leitis Association (TLA). “Through the Global Fund, TLA has rapid testing kits for HIV available-However we are not permitted to run the tests and must wait for laboratory staff to be available to come into our office for testing, many times we miss out on opportunities to test people. We have the capacity to test using these kits and would like to take the lead role in doing so”.

Isikeli Vulavou, Executive Director for Rainbow Pride Foundation in Fiji believes that community centred approaches are needed in Fiji to strengthen the declining HIV response. “PLHIV and Key populations need to be in the centre of HIV programs in Fiji and the Pacific. From planning to implementation, monitoring and evaluation. We are ready to provide the services needed given the appropriate capacity building. Currently we are not reaching everyone that needs the services.”

Young people during the consultation expressed the difficulty around the culture of sexual health. From buying condoms to getting tested. “Young People would like to get tested, but government facilities are not to the expected level and often people are judged, there is fear of stigmatization and lack of confidentiality. We would prefer to go to a place that is more youth-friendly and non-judging,” Isha Verma, Fiji Ambassador for Asia Pacific Youth Service.

Director of Haus of Khameleon, Ms. Miki Wali further adds that ahead of the High Level Meeting, it must be clear that we do need a complete restructure and transformation within Public Health provisions especially in Fiji, and where social protections systems and Access Public Health infrastructure must be grounded in the principle of the 2030 agenda, “Leave No One Behind”. Systems must change.

Long-time PLHIV advocate Temo Sausau mentions that while increased testing is important and needed, governments should ensure full continuity of care. “Uninterrupted antiretroviral treatment and viral load monitoring should be a vital part of the service package. This enables effective treatment and viral suppression, so that a PLHIV can reach an undetectable viral level which makes them untransmissible, meaning they can no longer pass the virus on.”

“From global examples, the most successful HIV programs are from community-led interventions from prevention to testing, treatment and care,” says Renata Ram UNAIDS Pacific Country Director. “Countries in the Pacific need to invest in the HIV response to reap the benefits which is cross-cutting in social, legal and health areas. We need to be reminded that the HIV pandemic never left and is now a silent pandemic within a bigger pandemic. We need to not become complacent and bring HIV back on the agenda. Governments need to invest in political will and adopt game changing strategies to end AIDS in the Pacific region.”

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