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When it comes to an effective plan to tackle the AIDS epidemic, respect for universal human rights and prevention are inseparable from treatment strategies. Fighting stigmatization and investing in prevention and education are also big parts of the equation. This is the message coming from CUPE delegates attending the 18th International AIDS conference in Vienna, taking place from July 18 to 23, 2010.

This year’s theme is “Rights here, right now,” acknowledging that universal prevention and treatment wouldn’t be possible without achieving universal rights. Science and human rights groups agree they must work together.

One of the keynote speakers was Dr. Yves Souteyrand, coordinator of the Strategic Info Unit in the World Health Organization (WHO). He acknowledged that even though progress was made from the scientific part of the equation, none was made on the human rights aspect. Of the 33 million people worldwide living with HIV, 26 million are newly infected (since 1990) and the total death toll stands at 20 million. Every day, there are 7,400 new infections, and 5,000 people die. Of the newly infected people, 97 per cent come from low-to-middle income countries, making it clearly a social justice and human rights issue.

According to the WHO, even though global infection rates have gone down in the last few years, infection remains high among stigmatized groups such as sex workers, injection drug users, and men having sex with men (MSM).

Men having sex with men have 19.3 times greater risk of being infected than the general population. With homosexuality criminalized in 80 countries, we know that prevention for MSM is far from comprehensive. Statistics show that countries where HIV infections are rising are also countries where homosexuality is illegal.

The same is true for injection drug users. Treatment is not available due to stigmatization. For example, for every 100 of injection drug users in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, only one receives treatment. Forty per cent of countries reduce or limit access to HIV treatment to these people. Dr. Southeyrand was clear when he said, “Universal access to prevention and treatment can’t be achieved without universal access to human rights.”

Paula Akugizibwe, advocacy coordinator of the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, described a violation of human rights in southern Africa due to the devastating lack of access to testing and treatment.

On July 19, the keynote speaker was former U.S. President, Bill Clinton. He acknowledged that health care should be a right and talked about his foundation, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), which has helped over 2 million people in Africa access treatment. He was happy to report that the Global AIDS Fund has just agreed to support a needle exchange program for injection drug users. He also emphasized on the need to strengthen the health care system in general, as well as investment in prevention and education.

CUPE is represented at the conference by Sue Roth, member of CUPE 1063 and CUPE’s Global Justice Committee; Gloria Lepine, member of CUPE 3550 and CUPE’s National Aboriginal Council; and Michael Butler, executive assistant to the national secretary-treasurer. They have been joined by Trevor Gray, a member of CUPE 4308, working for the Prisoners HIV/AIDS Support Action Network in Toronto and Victor Elkins, Hospital Employees’ Union member representing the Canadian Labour Congress.

CUPE identified the HIV/AIDS issue as a priority in our strategic directions document adopted at the last national convention. Our most recent action was an online petition to support the call by African unions for universal access to HIV/AIDs treatment and services. Both the Global Justice Committee and the Equality Branch will be moving forward with our plans over the coming months.