13th ICASA winds to a close
SOURCE: The Nigeria-AIDS eForum is a project of Journalists Against AIDS (JAAIDS) Nigeria. For more information about us, visit our website: http://www.nigeria-aids.org 13th ICASA winds to a close Olayide Akanni Nigeria-AIDS eForum correspondent Nairobi, Kenya Choral renditions, cultural performances and long, boring speeches marked the closing of the 13th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA) here on Friday. The week-long energy-sapping routine of plenary sessions, oral and poster presentations, roundtables, skills building workshops and exhibition booths, was formally declared close by Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS at about 3.30 pm. According to official records, 7210 delegates from 109 countries participated in the conference. Highlights of the closing ceremony included the formal announcement of Nigeria as host of the 14th ICASA in 2005 and demonstrations by treatment activists protesting lack of treatment availability and inadequate funding for HIV/AIDS. However, the take home messages rang loud and clear as speaker after speaker representing different constituencies, to challenge African leaders, Western governments and multilateral organizations to reappraise their commitment to reducing the spread of HIV. In his closing remarks, Piot reminded the crowded hall about the need for urgency in tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. ?There is still so much to be done. Africa requires an unprecedented momentum of political commitment, which must be expanded, sustained and translated into action?, he said. He challenged African leaders to urgently strengthen the successes made in prevention interventions, ensure equity in distribution of antiretroviral drugs and demonstrate a greater level of accountability and prudence in the disbursements of funds. He noted in particular that the next ICASA in 2005 would be an occasion when African governments and multilateral institutions are expected to give accounts on many of the international commitments that they have made regarding HIV/AIDS. Such commitments include allocation 15 percent of annual government budget to health (agreed at the African Heads of States summit in Abuja in 2001); setting up laws to protect discrimination against people living with HIV (UNGASS declaration of June 2001); putting three million people worldwide on ARVs by 2005 (treatment initiative by the WHO and UNAIDS announced two weeks ago). Piot also challenged organizers of the ICASA to justify why donors should continue to fund the biennial conference, noting that future ICASAs would need to be planned in a way that would justify the huge resources expended. Professor Femi Soyinka, speaking earlier on behalf of the Society on AIDS in Africa (SAA), organizers of the ICASA, reeled out plans to reform the organization. As part of the reforms, a transition committee has been put in place to draft a new structure and operational rules for the SAA. Soyinka also announced his resignation as president of the SAA, handing over to the transition committee which would hold new elections under a revised constitution at the next ICASA in 2005. The present SAA, comprising mainly white-haired professors and old chums from the earliest days of the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, is expected to give way to a new vibrant organization reflective of the multidisciplinary approaches required in the campaign and importance of civil society voices. Soyinka, in his capacity as newly-appointed president of the 14th ICASA in Nigeria, also announced ?HIV/AIDS and the family? as the theme of the conference. He got a roaring applause from the audience at the closing ceremony when in his speech, he passionately appealed to Western creditors and the International Monetary Fund to forgive Africa?s debts. ?These debts are killing us. Free Africa from its towering debt problem. Please forgive our debts?, he said. In another address, Ms. Nomfundo Dubula of the Pan African Treatment Access Movement (PATAM), on behalf of African countries, called for the World Health Organization?s support in drug procurement and other logistics needed to expand access to treatment for people living with HIV. She challenged African leaders to stop foot-dragging and take concrete action to prevent new infections and prolong the lives of people already infected. ?You talk, we die. Stop playing hide and seek while your people are dying. Our leaders must show leadership in promoting access to antiretroviral treatment?, she called, to wide applause from the audience. Dubula?s views were reechoed by activists who blew whistles and held placards supporting enhanced treatment and calling for more funds to the coffers of the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, a UN agency set up to mobilize resources for the three major epidemics. Minutes later, the activists disrupted yet another speech being given by the acting ambassador of the United States in Kenya, Ms. Leslie Rowe. The activists, bearing placards with inscriptions such as ?Where is the Abuja promise??, Treat the People?, ?All we are saying, give us treatment?, queried the invitation of the American government official as a speaker at the closing of such an important African conference, a view which seemed to find wide approval by many delegates. Dr. Owili, Chairman of the 13th ICASA, apologised for inconveniences encountered by the delegates. He also had a few tips for his successor, Prof. Soyinka, on Nigeria?s hosting of the next ICASA. ?You cannot afford to ignore the community, the youths and PLWH. Everyone must be fully involved in the process right from the onset?, he said. Going by the many grumblings expressed by youth, PLWH and community representatives who spoke at the conference closing, it is an advice that needs to be well-taken. Olayide Akanni Email: olayide@nigeria-aids.org