Move away from HIV and AIDS? Not quite yet!

Published on Monday, 01 December 2014

Published by Susann Roth, Patricia Moser and Jane Parry on Monday, 01 December 2014

Launching Protect the Goal campaign
Launching Protect the Goal campaign

By Susann Roth, Patricia Moser and Jane Parry

The AIDS response in our region has undoubtedly made impressive gains in the past 15 years. But as we mark today World AIDS Day, we can reflect that there is so much more that remains to be done.

New infections have fallen since 2001, but in 2013 there were 4.8 million people living with HIV in the region, including 350,000 newly infected that year. Worryingly, the number of new infections has flatlined for 5 years. Treatment access has been massively expanded, and 1.56 million people living with HIV were receiving life-saving antiretroviral therapy by 2013. But at that rate only half of those eligible will be on treatment by 2015.

Resources dedicated to the AIDS response in our region come from both domestic and international sources, and ADB has been supporting HIV prevention projects since the early 1990s. From 2005 onwards, much of ADB’s contribution has been through the ADB Cooperation Fund for Fighting HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific, established with a $19.2 million grant from the Government of Sweden.

HIV specialists from ADB and its partner organizations gathered recently to discuss what the fund had achieved as it draws to a close at the end of this year.

The 120 participants from governments, UN agencies, and civil society organizations had a lot of good news to discuss. The fund has supported 17 projects in 12 countries, and had its most notable successes when it focused on ADB’s unique advantages: its key role in the development of the region’s new transport and economic corridors, its convening power and knowledge broker status, and its established relationships with national decision-makers at the most senior level.

The Cooperation Fund’s success stories included projects that capitalized on ADB-supported infrastructure projects to mitigate HIV risk along economic and transport corridors. Projects in Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Mongolia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Viet Nam all used this route to bring HIV prevention interventions to otherwise hard-to-reach vulnerable groups such as migrant workers, mobile populations and people living in border areas; and key populations at higher risk of HIV including sex workers, and people who inject drugs.

The knowledge base on HIV in Asia and the Pacific has been greatly improved thanks to a grant from the Cooperation Fund to set up and manage the HIV and AIDS Data Hub. The Data Hub’s website is now the go-to resource for data on the epidemic and response in the region. Other projects under the fund contributed more than 20 publications and other knowledge products, many of which are routinely used by ADB staff in HIV prevention work as part of infrastructure projects.

Partnerships with specialist HIV agencies, in particular UNAIDS, and grassroots organizations that have strong connections to marginalized groups and target populations, have greatly extended ADB’s reach. They have also enabled resources from the fund to strengthen civil society and nongovernment organizations and build their capacity, notably in the Greater Mekong Subregion.

HIV prevention is not a static target and as the epidemic in this region has evolved, the Cooperation Fund has been able to target resources to areas where there are newly emerging vulnerabilities, e.g., in cities such as Manila, Bangkok, and Chennai; and in border areas throughout the Greater Mekong Subregion.

And thanks to ADB’s established relationships with governments and the private sector in Asia and the Pacific, the fund has been uniquely positioned to convene key players from the private and public sectors, build on their experiences, and foster cross-border collaboration. Some of the most innovative projects are those that have brought on board the private sector, such as the Asian Football Confederation, which was able to use its massive region-wide reach to disseminate HIV prevention messages through the Protect the Goal campaign.

Hearing about the successes of the Cooperation Fund—as well as the lessons learned from those projects that were less successful—was heartening. Based on all this good news, it might be tempting to think that it’s time for HIV to move over and make way for other health and development priorities. What a wrong move this would be.

One only has to look again at the data, and the newly emerging epidemics in hotspots around the region, to see how much more work remains to be done.

HIV/AIDS continues to be a significant threat to economic prosperity and health security in the region. Slowing down efforts now runs the grave risk of unraveling the gains made so far, and missing the opportunity to stop the epidemic in its tracks, reverse its course and get on target for zero AIDS by 2030.

In his opening remarks at the meeting in Bangkok, Myo Thant, an ADB Principal Economist in the Office of Regional Economic Integration, said that we need more resources, but we also need to understand how best to utilize these resources. Specifically, there is a need to increase the knowledge base, not just about the epidemic landscape in the region, but also about what works, and how best to invest previous resources in future interventions.  

HIV does not exist in isolation, nor does it respect national boundaries. The strengthening of health systems is crucial to improve access to HIV/AIDS testing, prevention, treatment, care and support, including harmonization of services across the porous national boundaries in border areas. All sectors must be brought onside including, public, private and nongovernment agencies. Moreover, greater domestic responsibility for HIV/AIDS investments notwithstanding, support from regional and international funding sources is still essential.

For its part, ADB must continue to be innovative in its contribution to the HIV/AIDS response, strengthen its partnerships and tirelessly use its influence to ensure that this region does not drop the ball on HIV/AIDS.