AIDS Conference

The 13th annual International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Africa (ICASA), the biggest AIDS conference on the continent, was held in Nairobi, Kenya, from Sept. 21 to Sept. 26. Among the issues covered at the conference were the latest breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS treatment, the impact of international trade law on access to medicines, and homosexuality in Africa.

“If we are not better informed about HIV/AIDS after ICASA, we should be ashamed of ourselves,” wrote L. Muthoni Wanyeki in The East African (Sept. 29).

Writing in the Daily Nation (Sept. 29), Mwangi Githahu found that “one of the most refreshing things [at ICASA] was that people spoke frankly and unabashedly about sex, sexual preferences, and the connection with HIV/AIDS and STIs.” Homosexuality remains a taboo subject in Africa, and “That it was even being discussed openly was a sign of just how far thinking on the highly sensitive issue had come in recent times,” wrote Githahu.

An editorial in The New Vision (Sept. 29) said that conference participants “were optimistic that Africa would become the biggest consumer of antiretrovirals (ARVs) [drugs].” The paper found two developments promising: A decrease in the price of ARVs since the 1990s, and an increase in donor funding for programs to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Other participants were less positive. The East African Standard (Sept. 28) printed an address given at ICASA by Stephen Lewis, the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, in which he appealed to the world community to support the almost 13 million children in Africa who have lost one or both parents to AIDS.

“I’m enraged by the behavior of the rich powers,” Lewis said. “Africa has vastly more experience of orphans than the rest of us, and we should simply stop barracking and provide the resources for Africa to find solutions.”

But African countries were at fault too, wrote some commentators. Particular criticism fell on South African President Thabo Mbeki, whose government has done little to address its country’s growing health-care crisis. South Africa has the world’s highest rate of HIV infection: An estimated 4.5 million South Africans live with HIV, and anti-AIDS activists claim that 600 of them die of AIDS every day.

At ICASA, “South Africa felt, for me, present only by its absence,” wrote Ferial Haffajee in the Mail & Guardian (Oct. 3). “What did we learn at ICASA? That South Africa lags behind; that its lack of political will in this sphere is at odds with the leadership role that Mbeki has undertaken with such vigor.”

At the closing ceremony, Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, appealed for “political commitment and funding from African governments in the fight.” Others put the emphasis elsewhere, urging multinational pharmaceutical companies to lower the prices of their ARVs, and the World Trade Organization to ease import restrictions on cheaper, generic anti-AIDS drugs produced by developing nations.