Statement at the African Summit on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Other Related Infectious Diseases, in Abuja, Nigeria.
27 April 2001
27 April 2001
President Obasanjo; Mr. Chairman; Excellencies, Heads of State and Government; distinguished delegates; ladies and gentlemen:
It is an honour for me to address a conference of the OAU, for the first time since assuming my responsibilities as Executive Director of UNFPA on 1 January 2001. Your Excellency, President Obasanjo, thank you for your leadership in focusing our attention on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
We at UNFPA work with all countries of Africa on all matters concerning reproductive health. From this vantage point we have been concerned about the spread of HIV/AIDS since it first raised its head as a public health issue in Africa, and we are working with governments, our partners in UNAIDS, other international organizations and civil society to contain it. Being one of the cosponsors of UNAIDS, UNFPA focuses on prevention and all its components, as have been stated by my colleagues, the heads of WHO and UNICEF, and the mechanisms stated by the Executive Secretary of the ECA.
I fear that in the early days many of those involved underestimated the impact of the infection. Now we can all see that the pandemic has reached the point where it represents a real threat, not only to individual lives, but to families, communities and to development itself. I can say with confidence that we are now united in the effort to defeat it. Please allow me to make four points today.
First, treatment, care and support are critically important to relieve suffering and improve the lives of those affected, but the pandemic will be ended only by reducing the number of new cases and preventing the further spread of infection;
Second, there is still a great deal to learn about the virus and we must continue all possible efforts to find a vaccine. At the same time, we already know enough to mount an effective prevention campaign;
Third, African countries need the world’s help and many additional resources to help fight HIV/AIDS, but success will come as the result of leadership and commitment within Africa itself.
Fourth, Africa’s leadership in fighting HIV/AIDS and preventing its spread will provide many lessons that can be used in other parts of the world, especially in Asia and Eastern Europe where the disease is beginning to take hold.
Preventing Further Spread
Providing treatment, care and support for more than 25 million people now living with HIV/AIDS in Africa is a human rights imperative and a public health priority. Mounting an adequate response to this human tragedy will be the first great test of our common humanity in the 21st century.
The Secretary-General’s call for action has led the way on a global level, and the Plan of Action that you will adopt here will guide our work in Africa.
We welcome recent action to reduce the cost of treatment, and the promise this holds for lengthening and improving the quality of many lives. But in every successful campaign against disease, prevention accompanies treatment, and success is measured in falling numbers of new infections.
In this respect, the battle against HIV is no different from fighting any other virus. However, several unique and deadly characteristics assist the transmission of HIV, including the presence of other sexually transmitted infections. In preventing the further spread of HIV, we must also hold back these resurgent diseases, by prevention as well as treatment. We must also recognize the part played by poverty and deprivation in spreading infection.
Experience shows that the first line of defence is acknowledging that HIV/AIDS is a serious threat, unlike any Africa has faced, and responding accordingly. By killing men and women in the prime of their lives, AIDS removes from society its most productive members, those on whom the family, the community and the country most rely.
Yet the infection is still often seen as shameful. This summit sheds the shame and brings forward openness about the disease, propelling efforts to fight it.
We often invoke cultural values to justify our inaction. But our cultures are full of values that support women and young people, that promote knowledge and dialogue, that build on community solidarity and mutual support among its members. Let us call upon all these cultural values to move us forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Over half of all new infections are among young people. As parents and adults, we may have reservations about what we should tell our children; we may find it difficult to speak about sexual activity; we may fear that we will encourage a permissive atmosphere. But we must overcome our reservations. Experience will reassure us – all the evidence shows that young people who are armed with information and who have access to counselling and services will either adhere to abstinence or delay their sexual activity, and are less likely to fall victim to infection or unwanted pregnancy.
Yesterday afternoon, young people, representing NGOs that promote support for youth in several African countries, honoured me by expressing their need to speak with me. They described their efforts to be heard by us, the elders, as “a cry in the wilderness”. I was impressed by the seriousness and depth of their comments, and by their real understanding of the world in which they live. Please let us hear them well, so that their cry in the wilderness, the cry of their exclusion from matters that affect their lives, turns into an expression of satisfaction that they are being included in those matters.
Among the youth, young women are especially at risk. Women are often not equal with men as they enter into sexual relations; often they are forced into sex due to violence or the effects of poverty. And here we have to remember women in situations of military conflicts and in refugee and displacement camps, globally and in Africa in particular. We must empower women, and especially girls, to exercise their right to say NO.
Men also need special attention, to convince them of their responsibility for stopping the outbreak and protecting their partners, and to ensure that they have access to condoms and other services, including treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. We must work with men to ensure that they respect women’s right to say NO to unsafe sex as well as to abstain from sex. We must always see men and women as partners in a relationship built on mutual respect, trust, comfort and commitment.
We must deploy the whole range of reproductive health services against HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Thanks to many years of work, these services now exist in all countries of the region, and the systematic approach to prevention is well known. We just need to take the necessary action to move forward.
Resources and Leadership
Resources are very short for all these essential activities. Every country has plans to expand quality reproductive health services, to train new health care workers and to expand facilities for treatment and care of AIDS patients. A greatly increased supply of reproductive health commodities of all kinds is needed.
I am going from here with my colleague Peter Piot of UNAIDS to a special meeting in Istanbul. The purpose is to encourage support for reproductive health commodities for all purposes, and especially for preventing HIV/AIDS, and for improving the quality of care that services can offer. I am sure that the firm commitment shown here in Abuja will lend strength to our purpose.
I would like to recognize here the $57 million grant by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to UNFPA, in partnership with PATH and Pathfinder International, to meet the reproductive health needs of young people, especially HIV/AIDS prevention, on a national scale in Botswana, Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda. I would also like to recognize the progressively increasing grants by Ted Turner, through the United Nations Foundation, to protect the reproductive health of African youth. Both are examples of the social responsibility of the private sector.
In the end, the burden falls on you, the leaders of this region. Your determination, your commitment, your example, your leadership are vital to defeating this greatest scourge of our times. This is a fight we can win, and a fight we must win, for our children, and the countries they will inherit.
I assure you that UNFPA remains committed to this global effort.