As sessions came to a close, exhibitors began packing up materials, and many hurried to catch flights, the buzz in the air remained similar as a week prior when thousands descended upon Kigali.
The 20th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa, ICASA, wrapped up a week of sessions, debates, conferences, and panels on 7 December 2019. The theme of this year’s conference “AIDS Free Africa: Innovation, Community, Leadership” serves as a reflection for key takeaways and a call to action for the future.
Heads of State, Government Leaders, First Ladies, Ministers, researchers, activists and community members joined the forum to share research, successes, and challenge that remains on the global level in the fight to end the AIDS epidemic.
At a time when more and more countries are reaching and maintaining a high performance against the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, and have made several advances in achieving HIV epidemic control, the conference served as an opportunity to reflect on the progress made thus far, but also as a way forward in the fight to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
The opening of the conference, hosted by His Excellency President Paul Kagame, set the tone for the week. “Open dialogue saves lives. Shame discourages people living with HIV. From learning and accepting their status and accessing the healthcare needed to live a full life. ICASA exists in order to break down taboos that impede prevention and treatment. You are the ones to speak loudly and clearly,” he echoed in his opening remarks.
The importance of giving communities a platform to have their voices heard and to remain at the center of the HIV response for prevention, treatment, and access to health care services was reiterated throughout the week. “The communities are at the center of every aspect of HIV response, whether it is prevention, treatment, and care service. There is nothing we will do without you. We are going to do the advocacy in order to mobilize resources needed to support you,” said Prof. John Idoko, President of ICASA.
Throughout the week, the Community Village served as a space in which people living with HIV and key populations were able to share experiences, foster open dialogue, connect with others, and showcase their work.
The importance of advocating for women’s rights and investing in interventions aimed at wellbeing were discussed, including the fact that women continue to remain disproportionately affected by the burden of disease. Cervical cancer remains a major threat to the health of women living with HIV. In her remarks at the panel discussion, Effective Partnership for Cervical Cancer Prevention, Her Excellency First Lady Jeannette Kagame remarked that “Women living with HIV are up to 10 times more likely to develop cervical cancer, making cervical cancer a major threat to the health of women living with HIV.”
Discussions included the implementation of the new cervical cancer programme, which will focus on screening and treating adult women living with HIV/AIDS. New innovations in the
fight against cervical cancer, including US $1 screen and treat solutions, and artificial intelligence screening tools were also discussed.
Delegates discussed the importance of advocating for vulnerable populations, particularly among adolescent girls and young women. In Africa, girls remain one of the most vulnerable groups affected by HIV/AIDS, and they are twice as likely to be living with HIV than young men.
“According to UNAIDS, girls account for 3 of every 5 new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa among 15-19 year olds,” said Her Excellency First Lady Jeannette Kagame.
Home-grown solutions were examined, including how a range of partnerships can change the trajectory of the epidemic for young women. This includes the intersection between health and education and the importance of merging the two in order to challenge trajectories and maximize potential.
During the high-level meeting on the leadership of African First Ladies in the Response to the Epidemic, Mrs. Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS touched on this point. “6200 adolescent girls are infected with HIV weekly; girls are at risk of getting HIV because they lack the knowledge to make comprehensive decisions about their life. There is a big need to put girls in school.”
The importance of domestic financing was also discussed among African Leaders and key partners. The panel discussion served as an opportunity to reinforce commitments made during the African Union Summit in February 2019 to how best invest resources in health. Key takeaways included the need for leadership in programming, the necessity of partnerships, the need for innovation and technology, and the decentralization of services in order to provide cost effective treatment to as many people as possible.
Perhaps the theme that was woven through each session remained the importance of health for all and seeing health as an investment in order to achieve sustainable growth, development, and to end global disease burden.
“My hope is that we can take the ideas and discussions made here this week and turn them into action. We have a mission. We must address the challenges we have identified here and not only continue these important conversations, but also fight for solutions,” said Minister of Health, Dr. Diane Gashumba.
She concluded the conference with one final thought, “let us not forget that we are stronger together. I look forward to the next ICASA, and it is my belief that we will have huge successes to celebrate.”