By James Tasamba
KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) - The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) urged African first ladies Monday to provide the ‘political will’ to end the AIDS epidemic among children.
Speaking at a global AIDS conference in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said HIV, Hepatitis B and syphilis are endemic in Africa.
He said all three diseases can be maternally transmitted, are devastating and take a heavy toll on health systems with catastrophic expenditures for families leading to poverty in communities, yet all three can be prevented.
“Eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV, syphilis and hepatitis is achievable and you [first ladies] can help provide the key ingredient: political will,” Ghebreyesus told the audience, which included first ladies from Rwanda, Congo Brazzaville, Chad, Niger, Ghana and Botswana.
Eastern and southern Africa are leading the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, with an average of 92% pregnant women receiving anti-retroviral therapy, according to the WHO.
Rwanda’s first lady Jeannette Kagame called for open conversations about gender-based violence, which she said is holding back efforts aimed at ending AIDS.
Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said more domestic resources need to be invested in public healthcare and the HIV response.
The majority of children living with HIV are infected via mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
The world is lagging behind in its commitment to end the AIDS epidemic among children and adolescents, according to a report by UNAIDS released in July.
Global gains made in AIDS fight under threat
Speaking at the official opening of the conference, Ghebreyesus said global gains made in the fight against AIDS are under threat.
"We must be realistic. The gains we have made are under threat due to declining political commitment and funding,” he said.
The week-long international conference on AIDS and sexually transmitted infections in Africa focuses on how Africa handles HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections.
It runs from Dec. 2-7 under the theme “AIDS-free Africa.”
The conference has drawn nearly 8,000 participants, including leaders, activists, scientists and researchers from across the world to discuss the role of political leadership, collaboration and innovation in advancing efforts to end AIDS by 2030.
“The global goals give us the mandate to work together for an AIDS-free world. With innovation, community engagement and political leadership, we can make that vision a reality,” Ghebreyesus said.
Opening the conference, Rwandan President Paul Kagame observed that with sexually transmitted infections, stigma and silence are real killers as much as the underlying viruses because they hinder people from learning about and accepting their status.
Noting that AIDS knows no borders, Kagame called on African governments to increase their budget allocations for the health sector.
Governments must prioritize domestic financing for healthcare to ensure sustainability, he added.
In 2018, 770,000 people died from HIV and 1.7 million people were newly infected, with the vast majority of these cases and deaths occurring in Africa, according to the WHO.
More than 37 million people were living with HIV worldwide in 2018, with Africa accounting for around one in every 25 adults infected with the virus, according to the WHO.