AIDS meeting says refugees, IDPs should get greater access to treatment
TORONTO, Canada, August 21 (UNHCR) - A major international conference has wrapped up in Canada with calls for more education on HIV/AIDS, further steps to prevent spread of the disease and worldwide access to treatments, including for refugees and displaced people.
The UN refugee agency stressed the importance of including refugees and internally displaced people in initiatives to control and curb the deadly disease. "Refugees and other displaced persons should not be seen as a burden to the country of asylum but rather as change agents who can help fight HIV and AIDS together with surrounding host communities," said Paul Spiegel, UNHCR's senior HIV/AIDS technical officer.
Spiegel was among more than 20,000 people from scores of countries attending the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto, which wrapped up last Friday. The biennial meeting is the largest of its kind in the world and this year's attendance broke new records.
At the end of 2005, there were an estimated 39 million people in the world with HIV/AIDS, according to United Nations figures, with most living in developing countries. Some 64 percent are to be found in Africa, which has also has major populations of refugees and displaced people.
The role of population mobility as a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS was the subject of a session - "Migrants, Mobile Populations and Refugees: Key Challenges" - at the six-day conference.
"HIV, conflict and displacement are difficult issues to address" Spiegel stressed last week. "It does not mean we should put our heads in the sand. We must advocate and ensure that essential HIV/AIDS services are provided to all persons affected by conflicts."
In humanitarian emergencies, provision of things such as shelter, food, water and sanitation to refugees and the displaced are given greater priority than medical risks such as HIV/AIDS. As a result, preventative and curative treatment for sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS is limited.
Spiegel also urged delegates to share information and knowledge and to chart the future impact of the pandemic on populations affected by conflict and displacement. The relationship between humanitarian crises and HIV/AIDS is complex and each situation must be examined individually. UNHCR believes that while forced displacement, sexual violence and other factors may increase HIV infection, conflicts can also have a contrary effect.
The conference was addressed by Burundian refugee and HIV sufferer Noe Sebisaba, who has proved to be a classic example of the change agents referred to by UNHCR's Spiegel. "HIV has given me an opportunity to help others," said Sebisaba, the first refugee to declare himself to be HIV positive.
"My message is one of love and openness. Yes, I was originally discriminated against when I declared my HIV status," he said, adding that perceptions changed in his Tanzanian camp when he set up an organization to educate people about HIV/AIDS.
The Burundian government has invited Sebisaba home to continue his valuable work. "I have now repatriated and am trying to give back to my country the knowledge and skills that I learned when I was a refugee."