This is a guest blog by Crystal Lander and Susan Sainz of Management Sciences for Health and was co-published on their blog, Global Health Impact.
ROME — MSH and Global Health Council hosted a session at the 6th International AIDS Society Conference in Rome, entitled “Zeroing out New Infections through Prevention Tools and Technologies.” The speakers included Dr. Kamiar Alaei, co-founder of the first triangular clinic for HIV, STD and drug users in Iran and recent winner of the 2011 Jonathan Mann Health and Human Rights Award ; Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC; Dr. Zeda Rosenberg, founder and CEO of International Partnership for Microbicides; and Dr. Gloria Sangiwa, director of Technical Quality and Innovation at MSH. The panel was moderated by Dr. Jeffrey Sturchio, president and CEO of Global Health Council.
The global health community has committed to ending the transmission of HIV — achieving zero new infections — by 2015. This objective is critical to halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Several panelists talked about the importance of continuing the current momentum in AIDS research in order to attain this goal. Mitchell Warren explained that we cannot become completely satisfied by all of the positive results we’ve seen lately. Our new challenge is figuring out what to do next.
Dr. Gloria Sangiwa echoed this point, saying that we must transition from a “what if” to a “what now” mentality. Our recent gains in knowledge must be translated into what it means at the individual level. We need to address key barriers, such as limitations in human resources, by building on World Health Organization guidelines and constructing a policy.
Dr. Kamiar Alaei’s experience founding a clinic in Iran was a powerful example of overcoming country-specific obstacles to build a much needed health system. Prior to starting the clinic, Dr. Alaei found that many HIV positive individuals attempt suicide in the first year after testing positive. He attributed this to the stigmatization of people who have HIV in Iran, because it is assumed that anyone with the virus has engaged in inappropriate behavior. As a result, Dr. Alaei specifically focused on reaching most-at-risk populations (injection drug users, sex workers, youth) with clinic services. Dr. Alaei and his brother Arash, also a doctor, sought and received support from religious leaders but ultimately faced serious opposition from the government and were detained in June 2008 and in December 2008 imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. Kamiar was released in late 2010 after 870 days; Arash remains in prison today.
Dr. Alaei’s story shows that each country has a unique set of social, economic, political and cultural conditions, which must be accounted for when setting health policies. And despite what often seem to be insurmountable obstacles, each country is capable of improvement.
Thirty years into the epidemic, HIV continues to threaten the welfare of millions of people worldwide. Prevention research provides exciting opportunities as we seek to reach zero new infections. If we are able to effectively implement the tools we have, as well as continue the development of new ones, we will be able to meet our 2015 goal.