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General News Fri, 30 Nov 2007

First International African HIV/AIDS conference opens

Accra, Nov. 30, GNA - Mr. Abraham Dwumah Odoom, a Deputy Minister of Health, on Thursday called for the strategic placement of women at the forefront of the crusade against the spread of HIV/AIDS through expanded education and empowerment at all areas of their lives to halt the soaring rate of spread of the disease in Africa. "We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women by putting in place tools that will allow women to protect themselves, since they are the most vulnerable group with high infection rate," he said.

Mr Dwumah, who threw the challenge in his opening address at the three-day International African HIV/AIDS conference in Accra, said women needed to be empowered to be capable of negotiating safe sex, regardless of their socio-economic, religious or cultural status. "This is true, whether the woman is faithful and a married mother, a sex worker, no matter where she lives, who she is or what she does, a woman should never need her partner's permission to save her own life," he stressed.

Held under the theme; "Strengthening Interventions Towards the Elimination of HIV/AIDS in Africa", about 150 representatives of National AIDS Commissions, NGOs working to fight HIV/AIDS, researchers, Persons Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHAs) and media advocates from all over Africa are expected to examine the trend of infection, various country policies and interventions, funding, research access to antiretroviral therapies (ART) and best practices in various places. According to the Woyome Foundation for Africa (WOFA), a charity foundation registered in Ghana and organisers of the conference, participants were expected to adopt common positions towards a possible advocacy for an HIV/AIDS law for Africa.

In respect to this vision, Mr Odoom said, the continent must take drastic steps to halt the pandemic, saying current statistics on HIV/AIDS should send great shivers down the spine of all, especially African leaders, to push for stronger leadership roles and commitment towards the challenges ahead.

He said Ghana currently had a national prevalence rate of 2.2 per cent, which may seem low compared to percentages of other West African countries, yet those countries started with the same trend. The Deputy Minister noted that the message of prevention as preached a few years ago had to change, as infection rates soared in the developing world, saying it was clear that preventive measures alone were not stemming the spread of the diseases.

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Mr Odoom said though governments had put in place various polices and programmes to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS, bearing the burden alone would be too enormous hence the role of stakeholders as well as the involvement of all civil society organisations were crucial to ensure sustainable outcomes.

He also said notwithstanding the crucial role of women in prevention, the provision, care and treatment through a reliable supply of anti-retroviral and other medically essential medicines with guaranteed long-term affordability should also be a crucial step to ensure successful treatment.

This would include encouraging local production through voluntary licensing and technology transfer in countries with domestic drug manufacturing capacity and the purchase of medicines from lowest cost suppliers, including generic companies, to maximise the use of the available financial resources.

"It is critical that long-term sustainable solution to the crisis of lack of access to medicine be developed," he said. He said since the current preventive strategy of Abstinence, Being faithful and Condom usage (ABC) approach had not yielded much impact on behavioural changes, the decision to empower women to manage their own sex lives must be given critical attention and seen as a major option towards prevention of HIV/AIDS.

Mr Vitus Nanbigne, Project Coordinator, WOFA, said it did not matter anymore how HIV/AIDS originated, neither would denial of acceptance of its existence, accusations of exaggerated statistics make the disease vanish. What was currently needed was strong collaboration to halt the spread of infection, management of the infected and affected.

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He said ensuring the issue of drug resistance, affordability and best practices in both health facilities and at homes should be a major component of developed strategies.

Mr Nanbigne said WOFA's vision universal of accessibility to ARTs should cease to be a slogan, but a manifestation of really getting everyone who needed the therapy to have them, regardless of the cost. He called for intensified education, Voluntary Counselling and Testing (VCT), for especially pregnant women to prevent Parent to Child Transmission (PTCT) of HIV, while encouraging African leaders to set leadership example by testing for their HIV/AIDS status to encourage others to come out.

He said the Foundation intended to establish hospitals, treatment, rehabilitation and research centres across Africa, with its first project in Ghana by next year. It will comprise of 250 rooms, an HIV/AIDS research facility that will be open to all researchers and a research fellowship in collaboration with existing HIV/AIDS research institutions, to sponsor progressive researchers.

In addition to these WOFA has plans to build youth and skill training centres, sports academies, set up strong income generating activities for PLWHAs, particularly the poor and untrained ones who had lost their jobs due to their HIV/AIDS status. He called on political, traditional and religious leaders, to be brave and openly go for VCTs to serve as models or inspirations to other citizens to do the same.

Prof. Sakyi Awuku Amoa, Director-General of the Ghana AIDS Commission (GAC), said the Commission had largely followed a multi-sectoral national response approach, involving all stakeholders and especially civil society organisations (CSO) as well as the private sector for HIV/AIDS interventions, which had been very effective. He said the immense contributions of these key players could lead to the achievement of the national target setting process towards universal access.

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He said it was, however, important for CSOs to acknowledge their great potential of keeping policymakers on their toes and holding them accountable to their commitment towards this goal. Prof. Amoa said Africa could not realise its universal access goals when the rights of PLWHAs and also marginalized groups were not protected against stigma and discrimination. He urged all CSOs to intensify efforts at pushing for accountability of policymakers in addressing HIV related stigma by reviewing discriminatory laws and also help in monitoring their enforcements.

Mr Alfred Agbesi Woyome, Founder and Chairman of WOFA, linked HIV/AIDS to another form of slavery, but said while the pandemic was a global issue and not only for Africa to brood over, Africa must be allowed to solve its own problem in its own way. He said it was only when Africa learned how to properly manage the disease that the current stigma and fear of the continent would be eliminated.

Mr Woyome urged participants to put aside their political, socio-cultural, economic, religious as well as ethnic, beliefs and differences and come out with a strategic African policy to eliminate the spread of HIV/AIDS with its enormous implications. 29 Nov. 07

Source: GNA