As long as people with HIV/AIDS were blamed and shunned, the epidemic would continue to flourish, Dr Peter Piot, head of the Joint UN Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) told the World Conference against Racism (WCAR) yesterday (WED).

WCAR delegates have already agreed to a clause in the conference declaration noting “deep concern” that people infected and affected HIV/AIDS belong to groups vulnerable to discrimination “which impedes their access to health care and medication”.

Piot said he was getting “increasingly irritated” by the many reports that documented how bad the HIV/AIDS pandemic was but which didn’t pose any solutions.

“It is possible to respond successfully to the AIDS epidemic,” said Piot, “but it is not a single intervention that makes a difference. It is a combination of interventions.”

Strong leadership from national to community levels, particularly to support people with HIV to be open about their status, was crucial, he added.

“Leaders need to support people with HIV/AIDS to come out and organise themselves to spearhead fighting against the disease,” said Piot, pointing out that AIDS activists in Brazil had resulted in their government deciding to provide free anti-retroviral treatment to HIV positive Brazilians.

“HIV thrives on intolerance and xenophobia. It is always easier to blame others for the spread of HIV, but progress against the epidemic is only possible when communities own the problem of AIDS themselves,” added Piot.

Speaking alongside Piot, South African Mercy Makhalemele told the WCAR that “the world is so unfair to people with HIV”.

“I am tired of a world that is always debating issues and not coming up with practical ways of addressing the problems people with HIV face,” said Makhalemele, who has been living with HIV for nine years and lost her husband and baby to AIDS. Although she is healthy and would like to study, she is unable to get a bursary because of her HIV status.

“Discrimination [against people with HIV] happens on a daily basis. When we are diagnosed with HIV, experts predict our death. I have survived simply because I became involved with fighting against the discrimination and stigma,” said Makhalemele.

UNAIDS also launched a report yesterday on HIV/AIDS stigma in India and Uganda. While discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS was high in India, stigma in Uganda was declining as so many families had lost loved ones to AIDS. Ugandan healthcare workers and counsellors were also credited with helping to fight stigma by assisting people to accept their HIV status.