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AFRO-NETS> Summary of UNGASS and the Declaration of Commitment

Summary of UNGASS and the Declaration of Commitment

June 29, 2001 - At the conclusion of the United Nations Special Ses-
sion on HIV/AIDS, the international community adopted on June 27, 
2001, a sweeping action plan to fight the epidemic, with extraordi-
nary attention and commitment given to the special vulnerabilities, 
needs and rights of women.

The "Declaration of Commitment", approved by governments from around 
the globe recognizes the massive scope of the HIV-AIDS epidemic, 
whose death toll is nearing 25 million and affecting social, economic 
and political stability, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Perhaps 
the most striking aspect of the three day meeting was its recognition 
of the gender aspects of the epidemic and its increasing impact on 
the lives of women. The Declaration finds that women and young girls 
in developing countries are "the most vulnerable" to the disease. 
Where women once accounted for only a fraction of infections, almost 
50% of all persons living with HIV/AIDS are women. The conference re-
vealed that the implications of the feminization of the HIV/AIDS cri-
sis are profound. In poor countries, women's quiet, often unpaid work 
is crucial to meeting basic family needs - for food, shelter, fuel 
wood and water. There are also complex issues associated with women's 
roles as caregivers to those infected with the virus, and to children 
orphaned by the disease. Responding to the global HIV/AIDS crisis is 
crucial to saving women's lives. 


The Declaration of Commitment constitutes an agreed global action 
plan for stemming the spread and impacts of HIV/AIDS. The corner-
stones of the Declaration include:

Declaring the prevention "must be the mainstay of our response," gov-
ernments agreed on the goal of reducing HIV prevalence among young 
people (15-24) by 25% -- to be achieved in the most affected coun-
tries by 2005, and globally by 2010. Thirty percent of all people 
living with HIV/AIDS are currently under the age of 25. Reductions of 
25% in young-people's prevalence have occurred over five-year periods 
in the past, but achieving this kind of reduction in the most af-
fected countries over the next five years represents a formidable 

In order to ensure effective prevention efforts, the declaration 
calls for resolute political leadership and an integrated, cross-
sectoral response. In addition, successful prevention efforts will 
promote broad community engagement from key groups, such as non-
governmental organizations, the business community and people living 
with HIV/AIDS. It also includes the idea of targeted attention to 
vulnerable segments of the population, including youth, intravenous 
drug users, sex workers, women and the gay community. 

Creative information, education and communications efforts are also 
key components of effective prevention efforts, according to the Dec-
laration. Also known as social marketing campaigns, educational ef-
forts help to identify for the public key risk factors as well as 
steps that individuals can take to protect themselves from infection. 
In order to be effective, informational and educational programs must 
be relevant to the culture in which they occur - what works in one 
country may not work in others. In certain locations, educational 
themes in soap operas have been successful; in others identification 
with national sports has been helpful. 

Governments also agreed that provision of essential health services 
is also key - from commodities to counseling. In countries with suc-
cessful HIV/AIDS prevention programs like Senegal and Thailand, in-
creased use of condoms has been critical. In Uganda, male condom use 
increased to 55% in 1995, from 15% in 1989; similarly, Uganda's out-
standing prevention efforts have significantly reduced early sexual 
activities by adolescents. Intravenous drug-users also require ser-
vices to help reduce risky behaviors. 

Finally, prevention efforts are to be complemented by effective moni-
toring of the epidemic and of key behaviors that are responsible for 
risks and causes related to infection. 

Mother To Child Transmission: 
Transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child is the primary, near 
exclusive cause of infection for infants and young children. The dis-
ease can be spread during the course of pregnancy, delivery or post-
partum in the course of breastfeeding. More than 5 million infants 
have been infected since the onset of the HIV/AIDS crisis, with 
600,000 new infections last year alone. In seriously affected coun-
tries, the risk that an HIV-positive mother will infect her child is 
as high as 35%. 

Antiretroviral drug therapies and provision of alternatives to 
breastfeeding have been shown to dramatically reduce the risk of 
mother-to-child transmission rates. In order to make these services 
available in places of greatest risk, there is a need to dramatically 
expand voluntary testing and counseling services for women, enhanced 
access to antiretroviral drugs, as well as prenatal and post-partum 
care services for HIV-positive women. 

At the Special Session, nations agreed to the goal of reducing the 
number of infants infected by HIV by 20 percent in 2005 and by 50% by 
2010. To achieve this ambitious goal, counseling and testing coverage 
for HIV-positive pregnant women will have to increase to 80% and spe-
cial efforts will have to be made to reduce infections in young 

There is an important research component related to HIV/AIDS preven-
tion. Of special interest is the search for a safe, effective and af-
fordable HIV vaccine. More than 30 candidate HIV vaccine trials have 
been conducted since 1987. About 20 vaccines are now at various 
stages of clinical evaluation, and only two are at the advanced, 
phase III stage. According to experts, late 2002 or the beginning of 
2003 is the earliest date at which a vaccine could become available, 
and it is likely to take many more years still. 

Among the many efforts underway to develop and test prospective HIV 
vaccines is the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, which has 
raised more then $250 million and has four different prospective vac-
cines for Africa in development. Experts believe that different types 
of vaccine may be required for different geographic areas because ge-
netically distinct subtypes of HIV have been identified in different 

The Declaration of Commitment urges rapid development of vaccines, as 
well as a substantial research agenda related to women. In particu-
lar, there is a need for expanded research on female-controlled meth-
ods of HIV prevention. The male condom is the most widely known means 
of prevention and obviously requires male acceptance. But the lack of 
control women have over use even of a female condom illuminates the 
need for more advanced female-controlled methods. In many places, 
women lack the ability to refuse sex or ensure the practice of safe 
sex. Of special interest to researchers is development of microbi-
cides, which are substances (creams, gels, etc.) that women can use 
to guard against HIV transmission. 

Treatment and Care: 
60 million people have been infected with HIV and millions more af-
fected by the death and illness of loved ones. Today, there are 37 
million people living with the disease. To these individuals and 
their families, compassionate care and effective treatment are urgent 
priorities. In developed countries like the United States, many citi-
zens have become complacent about the HIV/AIDS crisis in view of the 
effectiveness of drug therapies that have prolonged the lives of peo-
ple living with the disease. However, these therapies cost tens of 
thousands of dollars and have much more significant effects than most 
people realize. In addition, antiretroviral drugs are not a cure for 
the disease. Moreover, in poorer parts of the world, these therapies 
are prohibitively expensive and thus a distant hope for people living 
with AIDS. 

Significant progress has been made in terms of encouraging broader 
access to expensive treatments. The UN and others have made great 
strides in working with pharmaceutical manufacturers to establish 
tiered-pricing structures whereby poor nations can more realistically 
afford drugs, consistent with patent protections and international 
trade regimes. 

Caring for people living with AIDS and their families extends beyond 
antiretrovirals, however. In many cultures, this includes reducing 
the stigmatization of HIV/AIDS infection. In many places the pres-
sures associated with a positive diagnosis are enough to discourage 
testing and to deny the truth about infection. That is why ensuring 
the dignity and human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS is high 
on the international agenda. The care agenda also includes providing 
support to caregivers and health care workers, who face special pres-
sures, risks and challenges. 

At the Special Session, nations agreed that access to antiretroviral 
drugs that can significantly extend the lives of HIV-infected people 
and that special efforts should be made to ensure availability and 

Emphasis was also given at the Special Session to issues associated 
with caring for the more than 13 million AIDS orphans, most of whom 
reside in sub-Saharan Africa. The action plan sets a goal of 2005 for 
significantly enhanced community, national and international efforts 
to care and assist children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.

After two decades of experience, a great deal has been learned about 
how to respond to the global HIV/AIDS crisis. The challenge is not in 
identifying how to respond, but rather how to marshall the political 
and financial commitments needed to implement effective responses. 

In the poorest countries of the world, approximately $2 billion is 
spent annually on HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care. In prepa-
ration of the Special Session, the United Nations assembled experts 
to estimate global resource requirements needed to reverse the spread 
of the epidemic and mitigate its impact. According to these experts, 
annual expenditures of more than $9 billion are needed on a sustained 
basis. More than half of these resources are needed for prevention 
efforts, and half for treatment and care. 

The Declaration endorses creation of the fund and efforts to ensure 
that annual global expenditures on HIV/AIDS reach $7-10 billion by 
2005 - with recipient nations contributing up to half of these re-
sources and donors the remainder.


Addressing the gender aspects of the HIV/AIDS crisis was among the 
most important themes raised at the three-day conference. "If there 
is one idea that stands out clearly in this declaration, it is that 
women are in the forefront of this battle," UN Secretary-General Kofi 
Annan said upon conclusion of the conference.

During the conference the UN Women's Fund reported that teenage girls 
in many southern African countries are 5-6 times more likely to be 
infected with HIV than male adolescents. Similarly, women account for 
a growing share of annual infections, including 55% of annual infec-
tions in sub-Saharan Africa last year. 

To help save women's lives, the Declaration calls for a broad range 
of measures, particularly realization of women's basic human rights 
and empowerment of women so that they are to say not to unwanted sex 
and to protect themselves from the risk of infection. Accordingly, 
the text promotes research on women-controlled methods of prevention, 
such as microbicides. 

On the human rights front, the Declaration calls for realization of 
all human rights for women by 2005. It also calls for steps to reduce 
the incidence of all forms of violence against women and girls and 
elimination of all forms of discrimination.

The Declaration also recognizes that advancing women's socio-economic 
status is imperative to reducing vulnerability and promoting develop-
ment. Therefore, the document calls for universal girls education and 
legal and policy changes to ensure that women have access to credit, 
rights of inheritance and economic opportunities. 

written by David Harwood for

Cecilia Snyder - Managing Editor

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