By: Michelle Hough
Caritas Communications Officer
Hot dogs, pizza, Chinese, European deli…
I’d just got off a nine-hour flight from Rome, and despite the vast selection of things to eat at JFK airport, the choice paralysed me. I couldn’t face any of it.
Three days later on the first day of the International AIDS conference in Mexico City, I had the same problem. The programme guide looked like a phone book and was over 400 pages long. With an estimated 25,000 people coming from across the world to discuss HIV and AIDS, I suppose they needed something to cater to everyone’s tastes. Although I couldn’t help wondering if all these events just ended up being too many.
I‘m at the conference as part of the media team for Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EEA) – a network of 90 faith-based organisations to which Caritas belongs – that narrows down the phone book of events to faith-based ones. A bit more manageable. I’m here to write stories for the EEA newsletter and website – without forgetting to do some for Caritas Internationalis (CI).
Before the AIDS conference started on 3rd August, faith-based groups gathered for a “pre-conference” entitled “Faith in Action. Now!” Basically, this helped them to get their plan of action together and share ideas and experiences before being sucked into the whirlpool of the main conference.
It is the first time that I’m dealing with AIDS issues in my job as communications officer for CI, but I’m with Monsignor Robert Vitillo, who is CI’s Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS. He has worked in the field of HIV and AIDS for over 20 years.
As I wandered around the “global forum” – a big tent full of stands representing hundreds of AIDS bodies – and looked at the multitude of AIDS organisations present such as “Hairdressers Against AIDS”, “Puppeteers without Borders” , “Sex Workers Outreach” and the Jerusalem AIDS Project, I realised that there was a place for everyone’s point of view in the AIDS debate.
By: Rev. Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo
Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS, Caritas Internationalis
The three-day Ecumenical pre-conference, convened in Mexico City, prior to the opening of the XVII International AIDS Conference attracted the participation of 480 people coming from 77 countries. The Catholic participation in this pre-conference was significantly greater that that in previous conferences, especially due to the fact that CAFOD and Trocaire (respectively, the Caritas organizations of England/Wales and of Ireland) invited many programme partners, including those coming from national and diocesan Caritas organizations, from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. CORDAID, the national Caritas organization from the Netherlands also invited several of its programme partners.
With the overall theme of “Faith in Action … Now”, the pre-conference emphasized the need to engage religious leaders in a more intensive response to the HIV pandemic. During the plenary sessions, as at previous pre-conferences, much emphasis was placed on the need to challenge stigma and discrimination among religious leaders and communities of faith. In this regard, Bishop Mark Hanson, President of the Lutheran World Federation, made a ritual act of seeking pardon for such discrimination caused by church leaders by washing the feet of two HIV-positive women. Many participants were deeply moved by this gesture; others were made uncomfortable by such an action and expressed the need to focus more on the positive work of the churches in response to AIDS rather than to launch into a constant litany of the negative actions on the part of some churches and religious leaders.
One new feature of this pre-conference was a focus, during one of the plenary sessions and in some workshops, on the situation of children living with and affected by HIV.
By: Michelle Hough
Caritas Communications Officer
In the 1980s, there was a doom-laden advert on British television warning that the number of people who had died from AIDS up until then was “just the tip of the iceberg”.
Reading some UNAIDS statistics while I was at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, I found out that an estimated 33 million people were living with AIDS in 2007, while 2 million people had died from AIDS-related illnesses.
So it had been the tip of the iceberg… however, I met people with HIV and AIDS – people from Mexico and the United States – at the conference and, with the help of good healthcare and a nutritious diet, their lives were manageable.
I visited the Global Village at the conference, where hundreds of stands promoted various organisations’ ideas and efforts to help people with HIV and AIDS, and I felt that there was almost a sense of celebration. AIDS was no longer an iceberg that was going to crash into us and sink us all, but was something that could be brought under control by various means.
Closing comments at the end of the International AIDS Conference confirmed this idea: AIDS was preventable, but if you got it, it was treatable.
Then I remember a photo someone once showed me of an African family, asking me if I noticed anything strange.
I did. There were children and there were grandparents, but there were no parents.
The UNAIDS Epidemic Update says that three-quarters of all AIDS-related deaths in 2007 occurred in sub-saharan Africa.
From what I’ve read, the reality of HIV and AIDS is very different for these people. Often, they don’t have access to healthcare and the right medicines; when they do, they might not have enough or the right foods to boost their nutrition levels so their bodies can absorb antiretroviral treatments.
Francesca Merico, a colleague from Caritas Internationalis’ (CI) Geneva office, told me that children in poor families around the world, often die unnecessarily because they don’t receive a quick enough diagnosis, or they don’t receive enough nutritious food – or their families don’t have a refrigerator to keep medicines cool. Sometimes these children die simply because they are given the wrong doses of adult medicines as child doses aren’t available to them.
An estimated 290,000 children under 15 died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2007.
While wealthy countries are managing to navigate their way around the iceberg, these children and a whole generation of parents in the developing world are taking its full force.
The Catholic Church – with its vast network of dedicated people on the ground – focuses a lot of its AIDS work on people like these.
Francesca told me that CI is launching a new campaign to ensure the quick diagnosis and adequate treatment of children with AIDS.
I heard other stories too, such as the one by the General Secretary of the YWCA, Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, who said when she was growing up in Zimbabwe and her family was affected by AIDS and illness, it was the Church that was there in the absence of any other help.
The conference is now over and people have gone home. The rallying cry at the conference, “Universal Action Now!”, urged the world to ensure prevention, care and treatment for everyone by 2010.
Looking at the UNAIDS figures, for many people in the developing world, who haven’t yet even gained access to clean water and regular, nutritious food, this goal still looks a long way off.