December 1, 2017 at 7:21 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
World AIDS Day used to highlight HIV/AIDS stigma, discrimination

This year’s World AIDS Day is taking place against the backdrop of growing criticism over the Trump administration’s commitment to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and around the world. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Advocates around the world have used this year’s World AIDS Day to urge their respective governments to do more to combat the epidemic among LGBTI communities.

GALZ, a Zimbabwean LGBTI advocacy group, on Friday in a press release noted the HIV prevalence rate in the country has fallen from 32.1 percent in 2000 to around 15 percent in 2017. GALZ nevertheless pointed out underrepresented groups “are being left out from adequate and relevant treatment services, thereby making the goal of closing the gap of new infections hard to reach.”

“Sexual minorities such as lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, intersex and other men who (have) sex with men and women who sex with (have) women are more vulnerable to HIV owing to limited access to relevant services targeted specifically at them,” said GALZ. “There is need for targeted HIV prevention programs to be implemented with the engagement and participation of the LGBTI community so that they are more effective and ownership is promoted.”

“Innovative programs should be put in place to reach the LGBTI community with proper information on preventive and protective methods and support services,” it added.

The Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, a St. Lucia-based LGBTI advocacy group that works throughout the Eastern Caribbean, in a press release notes countries throughout the region continue to make progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The organization — like GALZ — notes stigma and discrimination and other factors that include colonial-era laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual relations remain barriers to fighting the epidemic.

“As we mark World AIDS Day 2017, ECADE and our partners across the eastern Caribbean call on our governments to fulfil their responsibility to respect and protect all citizens, particularly the marginalized,” said Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality Executive Director Kenita Placide. “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, sex workers, the disabled, the elderly are all among the groups made vulnerable by criminalization, stigma and discrimination.”

“We remind our governments that it is their responsibility to ensure essential services are readily available in a safe, secure and stigma-free environment,” she added.

Hurricanes Maria and Irma devastated Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla, Barbuda, Dominica, the Turks and Caicos, Guadeloupe and portions of Cuba in September. People with HIV/AIDS who live on the storm-ravaged islands were unable to access medications, food and other basic supplies after the hurricanes.

Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is the mayor of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, told the Washington Blade earlier this month that officials “stocked-up” on medications and other supplies for a city-run AIDS clinic before Maria made landfall on the island’s southeastern coast on Sept. 20. AIDS Healthcare Foundation is also helping Yulín’s administration identify people with HIV/AIDS who need generators in order to operate their oxygen machines and other vital equipment.

Growing concern over U.S. commitment to fight epidemic

UNAIDS estimates 36.7 million people around the world were living with HIV at the end of 2016. The agency’s statistics also indicate 20.9 people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral therapy as of June 2017, compared to 17.1 million in 2015.

Neither President Trump nor Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically mentioned the LGBTI community in their respective World AIDS Day statements. This year’s World AIDS Day is also taking place against the backdrop of growing concerns over the Trump administration’s commitment to fight the epidemic in the U.S. and around the world.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in September noted at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in D.C. that Trump’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year would cut $150 million from the Centers for Disease Control, $59 million to the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency Act that provides assistance to low-income people with HIV and their families, $26 million from the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA) Program and $72 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. The California Democrat also pointed out the proposed budget would cut $850 million from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and $225 million from the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

PEPFAR’s website notes there has been between a 25-40 percent decline in new HIV diagnoses among “adolescent girls and young women” through the PEPFAR-funded Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) public-private partnership in the 10 African countries that have implemented it. The website also notes, among other things, that more than 13.3 million people have received antiretroviral treatment through PEPFAR.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in September released the PEPFAR Strategy for Accelerating HIV/AIDS Epidemic Control (2017-2020), which “includes investing” in more than 50 countries around the world with three specific goals. They are maintaining “life-saving treatment for those we currently support, while making essential services like testing linked to treatment more accessible,” expanding services to children whose parents have died of HIV/AIDS and accelerating “progress toward controlling the pandemic” in 13 countries that “represent the most vulnerable communities to HIV/AIDS and have the potential to achieve control” by 2020.

“The Trump administration remains deeply committed to the global HIV/AIDS response and to demonstrating clear outcomes and impact for every U.S. dollar spent,” wrote Tillerson in the preface of the PEPFAR plan he announced. “We want to look back together and recognize that it was here, at this point in time, that our accelerated focus led to a world free of HIV/AIDS. We are proud to partner with many others in this endeavor. Our support — and our commitment — are unwavering as we work together to control and ultimately end this pandemic, once and for all.”

Tillerson on Friday issued a World AIDS Day statement that did not contain any specific references to the LGBTI community. He was scheduled to deliver a speech on U.S. efforts to combat HIV/AIDS at the State Department on Thursday, but Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan gave it instead.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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