There's a new sense of optimism among researchers and activists seeking to end the HIV-AIDS global epidemic with advances in medical treatments. The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, representing the United Church of Christ at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia was among many at the gathering who believe the faith community will help pave the way.
Schuenemeyer, director of the United Church AIDS Network, attended the six-day conference that concluded July 25 and came away believing that the end of the epidemic is in sight if faith communities are part of the solution, following the call that no human is "left behind."
"It will be important for the broader AIDS community to integrate faith at those tables where strategic planning and decisions are made," he said. "If we are to be successful at addressing stigma, working from a human rights frame and scaling up efforts, the HIV response community must work more closely and effectively with the faith community."
Schuenemeyer said that faith communities can be a place to share information and educate people about HIV-AIDS. Faith communities can also be a place for care and support.
"The key to achieving the end of the epidemic is scaling up testing, getting people who test positive into treatment, and getting their viral loads to undetectable levels," Schuenemeyer said. "Faith communities can be testing sites and can provide the kind of care and support that can help a person who tests positive get into treatment."
The International AIDS Conference brings together international leaders working on HIV-AIDS research, as well as policy makers and persons living with HIV-AIDS, to assess the state of recent scientific developments and chart a course forward to end the epidemic. The event takes place every two years.
Faith leaders and their communities, a visible presence at the conference, must also play a significant role in eliminating stigma and discrimination, especially among populations where there are high rates of transmission, including sex workers, injection drug users and men who have sex with men.
"Promoting values that honor the God-given worth and dignity of every person and creating safe space for conversations that deepen awareness and understanding of stigma will make a huge difference [in reducing stigma and discrimination]," Schuenemeyer said. "The scientific evidence already clearly shows that HIV is a treatable disease, especially when there is early detection of the virus and persons infected receive anti-retroviral treatment (ART). The question is, can we end the epidemic? The news from this conference is that we are genuinely at a tipping point."
The consensus at the conference is that the researchers and activists can reach the end of the epidemic by 2030 if they scale up their efforts with easily accessible testing and treatment. Already, the medical and faith communities are on track to meet a goal of 20 million people receiving anti-retroviral treatment by 2020.
"Our advocacy and program must line up with these needs," Schuenemeyer said. "If we fail, the tipping point could move in the opposite direction, which will tragically cost more lives and needlessly require even higher levels of funding to overcome.
"The time is now while the end is truly in sight," he added. "Clearly our faith traditions call on us to do everything we can to end the HIV epidemic."