Government officials, civil society representatives - including people living with HIV - and other experts in the AIDS response gathered in Warsaw, Poland to discuss the challenges faced by the region with the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world.
At the 19th annual conference on HIV, which took place from 3-4 December hosted by the Ministry of Health of Poland, participants shared best practices and explored opportunities to strengthen the AIDS response in Eastern and Central Europe.
“For obvious reasons, we are trying to focus on the situation of Eastern Europe, as this is the region where the epidemic dynamic is the highest in the world,” said Igor Radziewicz-Winnicki, Under Secretary of State, Ministry of Health. “It is one of the major epidemiological challenges at the moment,” he added.
According to UNAIDS, between 2001 and 2011, the estimated number of people living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia increased by more than 50% from 970,000 to 1.4 million. Furthermore, despite the scale up of antiretroviral coverage in the last years only an estimated 25% of people eligible for HIV treatment are receiving it.
The epidemics in the region continue to be fuelled by injecting drug use where countries have had limited progress in slowing the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs. Evidence from recently published studies suggests that accessibility to needle and syringe programmes is low in most countries in the region. Access to other HIV prevention methods such as condoms, HIV testing or treatment is also very limited for people who use drugs.
In her keynote address, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director, Management and Governance, Jan Beagle highlighted the need to scale up evidence-based and country-specific HIV prevention programmes focusing on the needs of key populations at higher risk. She also emphasized the need to increase access to antiretroviral treatment for all eligible persons in the region.
Although funding for HIV prevention programmes for people who inject drugs has increased in some countries, most of this increase results from the efforts of international donors. Domestic public sector sources in the region provide only 15% of spending on HIV prevention programmes for people who inject drugs. Ms Beagle called on political leaders to commit to scale up domestic investment and to increase national ownership of such programmes.
“Leaders in the region need to demonstrate strong political will to focus on the right programmes for the right people, to increase domestic investment, and to be role models in reducing HIV–related stigma and discrimination.” stated Ms Beagle.
Poland: Chairing the UNAIDS Board
The host country of this year’s conference will be the next Chair of the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating board that will take place from 11-13 December in Geneva, Switzerland. Poland is the first country of the region to be elected as Vice-chair and subsequently Chair of the UNAIDS board which is a clear recognition of their leadership in the region. Poland has played a critical role in making the issues affecting the region more visible to the Board.
Ms Beagle pointed out Poland’s exemplary collaboration with civil society organizations in designing and implementing its own national AIDS strategy. “This is a model of political engagement at multiple levels - international, regional, national and local,” stated Ms Beagle.