UNAIDS speech at Ho Chi Minh City meeting to commemorate Viet Nam’s 20 Years of Response to HIV/AI

Dearcolleagues and friends,

On behalf of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, thank you for inviting me to join you at this memorable event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of  Viet Nam’s response to HIV and AIDS.

I am happy to see today many familiar faces whom I have met in our quarterly coordination meetings. Coming to Ho Chi Minh City and regularly discussing with you has helped us understand the HIV epidemic in the City and your efforts to fight it. Over those past four years I have witnessed many significant achievements. When we look back 20 years, the level of progress is even more impressive. 

Ho Chi Minh City’s Department of Health prepared to respond to HIV in the mid-1980s, before the first case was diagnosed. Right after the first infection was confirmed in 1990, Ho Chi Minh City established the City Committee for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control headed by the vice chairperson of the City People’s Committee and including representatives from 16 municipal departments. You have shown a great example of leadership and multi-sectoral coordination in the response to HIV.

And during the course of the last 20 years, you have met many different challenges. You piloted and rolled out peer education for people who inject drugs, sex workers and men who have sex with men. You made available confidential and voluntary HIV counseling and testing services, and mobile harm reduction services to provide better access for people at higher risk of infection. You have rolled out antiretroviral treatment that is allowing thousands of people living with HIV in the city to live long and productive lives.

Time and again, Ho Chi Minh City has been a pioneer in the national response to HIV. Other provinces and cities learn and benefit from your willingness to try new approaches. A recent example was the introduction of methadone maintenance therapy to help people who inject heroin overcome their dependency, stay safe from HIV and become more productive members of society.

As the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during his recent visit to Viet Nam, you are not only preventing the further spread of HIV and reducing deaths from AIDS, you are achieving much more. You are giving life to people who will contribute to the development and success of Viet Nam. I congratulate Ho Chi Minh City for your great achievements.

Today, on this important anniversary, we must also look forward to the future of the HIV response. There are still major challenges to overcome. Nearly half of all people living with HIV in need of treatment still go without it. Only one in four pregnant women gets an HIV test and only one in three HIV-positive mothers gets treatment to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to her child. While today there are 50% more voluntary counseling and testing sites than there were five years ago, and condoms and clean needles and syringes are more easily available than ever before, HIV continues to spread among people who inject drugs, sex workers, the clients of sex workers, men who have sex with men, and their intimate partners. Unprotected sex is very common among young people under 24 years of age, which can be seen from the estimated abortion rate of 30% of all pregnancies and which put these future owners of the nation at the risk of HIV infection. The latest data shows that nearly half of all injecting drug users in Ho Chi Minh City are living with HIV, 16% of the city’s female sex workers are HIV-positive, and about 15% of men who have sex with men in the city are living with HIV.

You might be thinking:  “But what more can we do? How can we close these big gaps?”

The answer is in the theme of this year’s National AIDS Action Month: universal access and human rights. Viet Nam’s laws protect the rights of people living with HIV and people at higher risk of infection – but we need to ensure the laws are well understood, respected and enforced at all levels, by all people. The key is to reduce stigma and discrimination. People at risk dare not take an HIV test or suggest wearing condoms with their spouses because they fear being identified as practicing ‘social evils’. People living with the virus hide their status for fear of being rejected by society. The darkness of stigma and discrimination allows the virus to hide and spread.

I will end my brief remarks with an appeal to Ho Chi Minh City to again serve as a pioneer – to break through old taboos and abandon approaches that are clearly not working, and to find new and innovative ways to chase away the darkness of stigma and discrimination, and shine a light on the path to universal access to comprehensive HIV services and the Millennium Development Goal of halting and reversing the HIV epidemic by 2015.

Thank you and chuc suc khoe.

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