Make AIDS History: Keeping the promise from Gleneagles to Lough Erne

Fionnuala Murphy
72573464 300x204 Make AIDS History: Keeping the promise from Gleneagles to Lough Erne

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A crowd of us stood in the Edinburgh sunshine holding giant eyeballs on sticks. The world is watching, our campaign banner proclaimed, ‘AIDS Treatment for All by 2010′. Photographers snapped pictures to wire out before the close of the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles.

Then news came through that bombs had exploded in London. The photographers packed up – no chance our stunt would make the papers now – and the campaigners began desperately phoning family and friends. Our concern had shifted so suddenly to the lives of our own loved ones.

That stunt was the culmination of years of campaigning by a team including the Stop AIDS Campaign, Christian Aid where I was an intern and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, where I work now. The previous year, we persuaded the Labour Party to commit to AIDS treatment for All in their manifesto. Ahead of the G8, we called on Tony Blair to fight for that target. I desperately wanted to believe that the Gleneagles summit could Make AIDS History.

The previous year I’d visited Milana, an organisation supporting people living with HIV in India, where I met a woman called Mina.  Mina’s husband had died from AIDS and afterwards his family threw her out. She’d had to leave her children at an orphanage but every day she visited them and one afternoon I joined her. There were dozens of children there with no visitors.  One was a little girl called Sangeeta. She had an angry rash and AIDS had made her so frail that she couldn’t walk. I cuddled her and she laughed – a sweet, gurgling sound. Leaving her was awful. It was hard saying goodbye to Mina too. She probably doesn’t even remember me now – another development worker who passed through – but when I left India, I vowed to do whatever I could to make life better for people like her.

On July 8th 2005, as the G8 summit closed, a colleague rang to tell me that AIDS Treatment for All by 2010 was in the official communiqué. I screamed with joy and thought of Mina. Now she could get the antiretroviral drugs that would keep her healthy.  Sangeeta, I knew, was probably already dead.

I’ve never been back to India but in 2009 I travelled to Malawi. One afternoon I sat with 40 women who had walked across the fields – some for miles – to tell me about the impact that treatment was having. In Malawi, as in many countries, women bear the brunt of AIDS and access to antiretrovirals had saved their lives. Another day I interviewed a group of sex workers on the Mozambique border, and they took me to visit a girl named Catherine. She was very ill and sat with her mother and sister on the veranda of their decrepit home, her beautiful face set in a grimace of pain. Afterwards, I asked my colleague if the girl would get better.
“She will make it,” she said, “because she’s taking ARVs.”

A few weeks later that colleague sent me a text message. Catherine had started treatment too late. She died on Christmas Eve, aged just 17.

As another UK-hosted G8 approaches, this time in my home country Northern Ireland, the government has just released a report which tracks progress against G8 pledges since Gleneagles. Incredible advances have been made on HIV, with eight million people in developing countries receiving antiretroviral treatment today, compared to just over a million back in 2005.

However, another seven million people are still in need. The Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria – another G8 initiative, launched in 2002 – wants to reach them. Globally, the number of new HIV infections is decreasing every year and, if we keep scaling up treatment and get prevention to the people most at risk, we really could begin to Make AIDS History, but only with continued investment from G8 countries.

In April, President Obama included $1.65 billion for the Global Fund in his 2014 budget request. If the UK also increases its contribution, this will leverage larger donations from other G8 countries. Organisations working on HIV, TB and malaria are calling for the government to commit £1 billion over the next three years. That may seem like a lot of money, but the UK’s total aid budget is just 0.7 per cent of national income. Only a fraction of that – 5p out of every £100 – goes to fighting AIDS.

David Cameron has identified other priorities for this year’s summit – trade, tax and transparency – and will host a pre-meeting on world hunger. These are all vital issues, but I remember Sangeeta and Catherine and hope that the Prime Minister will also protect what’s already been achieved and will ensure that G8 countries keep their promise to deliver AIDS Treatment for All.

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