By Somar Wijayadasa* | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis
Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (third from right) meets with the keynote speakers at an event on the occasion of the World AIDS Day, with the theme “One world. One hope” on December 2, 1996 at the UN Headquarters. From left to right: Martina Clark; Marina Mahathir; Cristina Saralegui; Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Elizabeth Taylor and Noerine Kaleeba. | Credit: United Nations, New York – Photo # 158026
NEW YORK (IDN) – The World AIDS Day, observed on December 1 every year, inspires me to recall how the United Nations acted – hesitantly but resolutely – when the AIDS pandemic killed millions of people around the world causing a substantial impact on the health and economy of many nations.
Since the first identification of HIV/AIDS among gay men in the United States of America, in 1981, approximately 76 million people have been infected with HIV, and 39.6 million people have died of AIDS – the highest global death toll of all time, and also the most politicized, feared and controversial disease in the history of modern medicine.
Africa was the most affected. UNAIDS “estimates that 25.6 million [22.3 m – 31.9 m] people in Africa died of AIDS related deaths from 1981 to 2014.” It has over 40 million children orphaned by AIDS, and 15 million children worldwide have lost one or both parents to the disease.
Equally mystifying is the promiscuous era that led to the AIDS epidemic. In the 1960’s, the advent of birth control pills, antibiotics for sexually transmitted diseases, legalized abortion, wide availability of marijuana, LSD and intravenous drugs –challenged traditional norms of social and sex life.
Young men and women became hippies, used oral and intravenous drugs, and engaged in free love – a sexual revolution. Thus, heterosexual activity and gay activism spread across the country, and HIV/AIDS ended the so-called “Golden Age of Promiscuity”.
By 1986, HIV/AIDS cases jumped 56% worldwide. The disease was widely spread among gay men who have sex with men, people with multiple sex partners, injecting drug users and sex workers – throughout the world.
Initially, no one knew what it causes, how it spreads, and there was no cure. As such, stigma, discrimination, and alienation were the norm, and contracting HIV/AIDS was nothing but a death sentence.
A profound impact on UN Inter-Agency Coordination
By 1993, twelve years into the raging pandemic, there was still no coordinated international response to combat the spread of the disease.
In 1987, the World Health Organization (WHO) created the Global Program on AIDS but was inadequate to deal with the growing pandemic.
Concurrently, several UN Agencies (WHO, UNDP, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNICEF and the World Bank) had their own health related programs but their effectiveness was severely compromised by interagency rivalries, and they categorically refused to work together.
Thus, an interagency working group – Committee of Cosponsoring Organizations (CCO) – of the heads of the above six UN agencies was established in 1993, and was charged with the responsibility to create a coordinated program to combat the epidemic.
In 1994, the CCO held several full-day meetings in New York, and as Federico Mayor, the Director-General of UNESCO (in Paris) could not attend all meetings, I was assigned to represent him.
My task was easier for two reasons: First, as UNESCO’s Delegate to the Executive Board Sessions of UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF, I was familiar with their health related programs.
Secondly, UNESCO had, on principle, agreed to the creation of one centralized program while all other agencies disagreed over its size and objectives – mostly because they did not want to lose a part of their empires. So, I knew where to draw the line.
However, after two years of painstaking deliberations, the bureaucrats of these UN agencies succumbed to the global moral outrage to create a coordinated response.
UNAIDS: UN’s defining response to HIV/AIDS
Thus, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) was created on July 26, 1994 by the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Resolution 1994/24.
The ECOSOC report E/1995/71 of May 1995 stated that “only a special United Nations system program is capable of orchestrating a global response to a fast-growing epidemic of a feared and stigmatized disease whose roots and ramifications extend into virtually all aspects of society.”
By the time the UN got its act together, approximately 22.6 million people were infected with HIV and 6.4 million have died of AIDS worldwide – a staggering indifference by the United Nations to the growing challenge of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In 1995, the UN Secretary-General selected Dr. Peter Piot – a well-known scientist and discoverer of the Ebola virus, as its first Executive Director. George Saddler, who was formerly the Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, was tasked to establish administrative structure of UNAIDS, and I was appointed as the Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations in New York.
Since UNAIDS Headquarters was in Geneva, Switzerland, my first assignment was to establish the UNAIDS New York Office. As a symbol of Inter-Agency Cooperation, Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF, gratuitously provided office space, and I managed to fully furnish it at no cost to UNAIDS.
In 1996, UNAIDS observed its first World AIDS Day at the UN with the participation of legendary movie star Elizabeth Taylor. In the following years, singer Liza Minelli, actress Sharon Stone and former First Lady Hilary Clinton addressed the World AIDS Day at the UN.
UNAIDS which was initially cosponsored by six UN agencies was later joined by UNHCR, WFP, UNODC, UN Women, and ILO.
These eleven co-sponsors from different parts of the UN family now work together in a cohesive and broad-based partnership against the epidemic – making it the first ever, and the most innovative multi-agency program of the United Nations.
End HIV/AIDS by 2030: an overarching goal
Over the years, HIV/AIDS became the first disease to be the subject of debates in the United Nations. In 2000, the United Nations Security Council declared AIDS an international security issue because it threatens social, economic, and political structures worldwide.
A Special Session of the UN General Assembly was held, in 2001, to intensify international action to fight the epidemic and mobilize adequate resources.
UN’s Millennium Development Goals aimed at halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015. This year, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals set an ambitious goal to eradicate HIV/AIDS by the year 2030.
Michel Sidibé, who was appointed as the Executive Director of UNAIDS, in 2009, has been vigorously promoting a vision of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths.
New HIV infections: Horrendously heartbreaking
We are now thirty-five years into the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the virus is still growing at a frightening rate of about 6,000 new HIV infections every day.
According to UNAIDS, “with 36.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS today, over 2 million new HIV infections, and about 1.5 million AIDS related deaths in 2014, of which about 270,000 are children, HIV/AIDS still poses a serious threat to communities all over the world.”
Widespread public education, rapid diagnostic testing for HIV/AIDS, and many advances in antiretroviral drugs have turned what was once a terminal illness, into a manageable disease.
A report released by UNAIDS in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on the sidelines of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in July 2015 says that the response to HIV has been one of the smartest investments in global health and development, generating measurable results for people and economies.
The report adds: “It also shows that the world is on track to meet the investment target of US$ 22 billion for the AIDS response by 2015 and that concerted action over the next five years can end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.”
Calling for eradicating AIDS by 2030, Sidibé said: “My vision for ending AIDS looks like this: voluntary testing and treatment reaching everyone, everywhere; each person living with HIV reaching viral suppression; no one dies from an AIDS-related illness or is born with HIV; and people living with HIV live with dignity, protected by laws and free to move and live anywhere in the world.”
An ambitious goal indeed! But in the absence of a vaccine, the international community must redouble efforts to eradicate this deadly disease.
*Somar Wijayadasa was a UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly for ten consecutive years from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 November 2015]
The writer’s previous IDN article can be accessed here.
Photo: UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali (third from right) meets with the keynote speakers at an event on the occasion of the World AIDS Day, with the theme “One world. One hope” on December 2, 1996 at the UN Headquarters From left to right: Martina Clark; Marina Mahathir; Cristina Saralegui; Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Elizabeth Taylor and Noerine Kaleeba. | Credit: United Nations, New York – Photo # 158026