On the way to the International AIDS conference centre in Vienna the underground fills up with more and more people, not surprising as there are supposedly 25,000 participants.
Somehow New York, as one of the most multicultural cities I’ve been too, comes into my mind. Today Vienna experiences an even bigger mix of nationalities.
Queuing for the entrance people approach me with a big sign that says “FREE HUG”. Not easy with the photo equipment backpack I am carrying. Tons of hugs are exchanged before the conference on Sunday evening officially starts.
At the conference there is one building for public access called the ‘GLOBAL VILLAGE’. It was supposed to open on Sunday at 5 pm only. But due to strong interest of the general public it had to open at noon.
One of the main topics we hear about at the plenary session that first night, is that the world needs to provide pregnant women living with HIV access to simple, inexpensive medicines that will prevent the transmission of the virus from mother to child.
In Europe and the United States, the rate of infection of children at their birth could be reduced to a mere 1%, while there are still parts of this world where up to one-third of children born to HIV-positive women are themselves infected with the virus.
As child-friendly HIV tests and medication are still missing, up to 50% of those children die before their second birthday.
The development of child-friendly medication is a Caritas concern. For this reason, the “HAART for Children” campaign was launched in 2009.
An important event organised by CARITAS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE of the conference took place on Monday. So I decide to have a look around the GLOBAL VILLAGE Monday afternoon and to attend to some sessions there.
Many organizations show their activities in the field of HIV and AIDS.
Suddenly a puppet wants to kiss me. I would have loved to see my face at that moment.
The puppet belongs to NOSTRINGS – Life-Saving Lessons through the Magic of Puppetry, a programme supported by the Irish Caritas (Trócaire). I decide to watch one of their short films on stigmatisation of people living with HIV and AIDS. The protagonists of the film are puppets and those short films are showed around the world in order to spread information about HIV. Great idea, I can see children love it. Not just children by the way.
Then I attend to a session called: ‘Left at the maternity hospital – Children and HIV in Eastern Europe’ which takes place in the GLOBAL VILLAGE. Caritas specialists from Ukraine and Russia share their experience in working with children affected by HIV/Aids and present challenges and good practices in supporting children having been left after birth or growing up in stigmatized families affected by HIV, dealing with drug addicted parents or living at high risk on the streets. The audience is primarily interested in getting as much information as possible on concrete programmes Caritas is running and good practice.
So, now it’s time to meet some journalists which are going to report on one of the main event of Caritas at the conference in their advocacy for child-friendly medicine.
Different experts such as Ronita Mahilal from South Africa and Rev. Msgr. Robert Vitillo talk about challenges in working with HIV positive children, about possibilities and limitations in treatment.
Together with young people from Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia, Caritas President Franz Kueberl hands over 21.626 signatures collected by Austrian young people to Irene Freudenschuss-Reichl (Director-General for Development Cooperation, Foreign Ministry, Austria).
Besides good and informative speeches, young people from Vorarlberg – which were strongly involved in getting signatures – dance and present a video, their message is: “HAVE A HAART FOR CHILDREN”
“Now governments and pharmaceutical companies have to show if they have a heart”, one of the participants tells me.
Discussions and events on Tuesday and Wednesday focus a lot on how to make programmes more efficient. Efficiency is one of the big words at the conference, also used by Bill Clinton in his speech.
Another important topic heavily discussed at the conference is flat-lining and reductions of financing of programs.
“For years they told us to upscale medication programs, now they suddenly tell us to downgrade. What they don’t tell us from Global Fund and PEPFA is how to do that. So every day I have to decide whom to give medicine and whom not,” said Fr. Richard Bauer, Director of Catholic AIDS Action of Namibia, which serves more than 14,000 AIDS orphans and many people living with the virus.