Vatican Radio Interview with UNAIDS Chief. 31/5/12
Dr Sidibé invited the pope's personal engagement in ending mother-to-child transmission of HIV
On 11 April 2012, Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, met Pope Benedict XVI, Holy See officials and Caritas Internationalis representatives in Rome. Dr Sidibé invited the pope's personal engagement in ending mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Dr Sidibé spoke to Philippa Hitchen from Vatican Radio about the visit and about the UN campaign to end mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015:
Dr Michele Sidibé, I would like to ask you first of all about the reasons for your visit here to the Vatican, and in particular about your meeting with Pope Benedict.
My visit is a very simple one. I am convinced that we will never change the face of our people who are suffering from HIV if we are not fostering the link between science, religions and social change. For me the Church is playing a critical role to help us to reach those people at the grassroots levels. through their mechanisms every Sunday ... they have families coming so we need to use this strength to help us to fight stigma, discrimination; and also to inform people that being sexually responsible is important when you really want to prevent new infections.
Can you give us some examples of places where you have seen these policies in action, where the Church really has made a difference?
In Lesotho, where you have 40% of services given to vulnerable people by the Church, faith-based organisations, I saw a young woman who was affected by HIV. She was pregnant and HIV-positive but because she managed to reach the hospital managed by a faith-based organisation, she got medicine and the baby was born HIV-negative. These are individual cases but, for me, cases that matter, showing that you can save the mother and at the same time avoid that the baby is born HIV-positive.
This elimination of mother-to-child transmission is one of your goals by 2015. Are you on track to do that, you think?
Yes, I think we are on track. A few years ago no one believed that we could even talk about the total elimination of transmission from mother to child. Today we have a big global plan, which has been launched during the high level meetings just a few months ago. We have 22 countries that have been able to review their strategy to establish new programmes and they are those with 90% of new infections [in children] every year. Now that they have mobilised and can really move this agenda, it will help us to change. It is important for us. Why? Because it is something we can really deliver on. It is not costly. We are talking about 150 dollars to just stop a transmission. You could imagine? If a baby is born with HIV it will cost us more than 150,000 dollars so why not do that in 2012?
One of the reasons why is still stigma, isn't it... discrimination, because it depends on women being able to come forward for testing and treatment?
You are right. It's stigma, discrimination. It's also the lack of engagement of men. It is also the fact that most of those women are not knowledgeable; they don't have information. They are living in a situation where they have generally been taken hostage by their social status. They are poor women. So that's why we think it is important to really give a chance to that woman to have access to information, so she can protect herself and she can avoid first HIV/AIDS, but if she is HIV-positive, at least she can have access to care and treatment to help her have a baby free of HIV. And that's why I was here. And I was very lucky to really meet with His Holiness. And my only message was, "we don't need a baby born with HIV"... I know a call from him to the leaders of this world to say it is not acceptable to have more than 900,000 babies with HIV every year in Africa when it is not happening in the rest of the world; this call to say it is not acceptable, it is issues of social justice, it is issues of better redistributing our opportunity to stop that, will help a lot.
What would you like to see the Church doing in more concrete terms to try and help stop these babies being born with AIDS?
I think the Church could help us in many ways: first to really advocate and mobilise families, to equip them with proper information, to make them understand that testing is possible. And then, when they test positive, they can have access to treatment. And also making sure that people don't stigmatize those women, that people understand that it can happen to be HIV-positive, but today being HIV-positive is not a death sentence. It's possible to live with HIV. Those messages the Church can help us with, and more than that, through pastoral letters, letters which can be sent to all the congregations, telling them on Sunday morning that we can stop transmission from mother to child; to go for testing and that when you are positive, don't be scared, drugs are available. Make sure you contact the help centres to have access to those medicines to protect you.
Also, we are working with Caritas in different parts of the world. They are in most countries today with different types of programmes. It is important to equip and to help them to have the possibility to reach people with services that can protect them, particularly treatment, and information that can help them to be safe.
We used to think of Africa and perhaps southeast Asia as the two critical areas where infections kept rising, and yet now in many of these countries, infections are decreasing. The areas, if I understand correctly, that you are concerned about now, are the Middle East and eastern Europe. Why is this? Why are you not being able to make progress there?
I think you are right. Just a few years ago people were saying that the epicentre of the crisis was Africa. We had only two countries with a successful programme - Uganda and Senegal. Today we have almost 56 countries worldwide that managed to stabilise, even to reduce significantly, the number of new infections. But unfortunately we still have an increase in new infections - a 250% increase in the last 10 years in new infections in eastern Europe and central Asia. It is simple, because I personally feel that people who need services, particularly who need to be protected, to have access to healthcare, people who inject drugs, don't have [services]. They are considered as criminal so they hide themselves and they infect other people. We are not promoting drug use. I'm not promoting homosexuality. I'm not promoting sex work. But I am promoting the protection of vulnerable people. We need compassion, we need to make sure that those groups have access to services. When I am talking about services, I am talking about care, I'm talking about treatment. And that is the same problem in Middle East today and generally in the northern part of Africa. I just came from Algeria and Morocco, and I can tell you that it was the same message. They are the areas of fastest infection in the world today, and we need to pay attention to stigma, discrimination, and we need to make sure that people who are vulnerable are having access to treatment and care and support.