Opinion: Don't jeopardize progress in fight against AIDS

The International AIDS Conference has warned that advances in fighting the spread of the HIV virus must not be undermined. Stigmatizing those who have contracted the virus is dangerous and wrong, says Astrid Prange.

The main takeaway from the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam is clear: Fighting the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a matter of political will. Those who oppose sexual education and the use of contraception, or propagate notions of the traditional family but refuse to help wives infected with HIV and their children, or ostracize drug addicts and scapegoat homosexuals are responsible for blocking progress in fighting the spread of HIV. 

In recent years, tremendous progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. These days, leading a fulfilling life despite being infected with HIV is very much possible. The spread of HIV has slowed down considerably — thanks to education, medical advances, global solidarity and a responsible approach to health care. Today, HIV is no longer automatically associated with death. Instead, it has become increasingly to live with the virus, even in the world's poorest countries.

Botswana leads the way

The fight against AIDS is a major success story. And the numbers prove it. In 2017, 22 million people of a global total of 37 million infected with HIV received AIDS medication. Of those, 4 million live in South Africa, the country with the most comprehensive state-run AIDS treatment program. Last year, for the first time since 2000, the number of AIDS-related deaths dropped below 1 million.

DW's Astrid Prange

Combating AIDS has been especially successful in Botswana, the country with the second-highest rate of HIV infections (17 percent) worldwide. Between 2010 and 2017, the percentage of infected people with access to antiretroviral drugs climbed from 50 to 84 percent. As a result, the number of AIDS-related deaths dropped from 18,000 (2003) to 4,000 (in 2017).

Read more: HIV self-testing kits to go on sale in Germany

Downward spiral in Russia

While major progress is being made on a global scale, negative developments in eastern Europe and Central Asia risk jeopardizing everything that has been achieved. Here, a combination of ignorance, religious convictions, traditions, taboos, discrimination and political irresponsibility could undermine the advances that have been made.

The situation in Russia is particularly dire. UNAIDS reports that approximately 1 million Russians are infected with HIV. And the number of new infections each year rose from 50,000 in 2004 to 100,000 in 2017. But merely some 360,000 infected people have access to AIDS medication.  

This is partly the result of Russia's ignoring international standards on how to prevent the spread of HIV. Indeed, some Russian religious figures bizarrely claim that AIDS is "God's punishment," while nationalist politicians vow to stand up for families but do nothing to stop husbands infecting their wives with HIV. Or fail to stop the children of such couples becoming infected with the virus — even though there are medical ways to prevent this.

Read moreHIV infects one teen girl every 3 minutes, says UN 

A crossroads

In countries where a human life counts very little, treating those with AIDS has low priority. In some places, where AIDS is still considered the "gay plague," there is little incentive to invest in the national health care services to prevent the spread of HIV. In countries like these, sexual education at schools is not prioritized and no money is collected to combat AIDS because those who contract HIV are blamed for their own plight. 

We have entered a crucial moment in the fight against AIDS. Whether and how we seek to prevent the spread of the HIV virus speaks volumes about the (in)competence and (in)humanity of our political and religious leaders, and reveals the caring — or uncaring — face of whole societies.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Prize-winning: '120 BPM'

The drama "120 BPM" is the latest film to take on the illness. Directed by Robin Campillo, the movie tells the love story of two young AIDS activists. It won the Grand Prix jury prize at Cannes last year.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

An early work: 'Longtime Companion' (1989)

Above all, French and American productions took up the subject of HIV and AIDS early on. "Longtime Companion" by Norman René is considered the very first to have described the disease as it tells the stories of eight gay middle-class men who are friends in the early '80s. That's when the illness first appeared and began ravishing the community, the impact of which is at the heart of the film.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Autobiographical: 'Savage Nights' (1992)

The French director and lead actor in "Savage Nights," Cyrill Collard, likewise takes up the topic of repression of AIDS when he brought his autobiographically influenced novel of the same name to life. In the film version, Collard plays a bisexual who does not take his life or that of his partners into consideration. He died in 1993, just one year after its release.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Oscar-decorated: 'Philadelphia' (1993)

Jonathan Demme's film "Philadelphia" was the first major Hollywood production that brought AIDS to the big screen for a wide audience. In it, Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who is let go from his job due to his illness. He takes his former employer to court in a melodramatic and sentimental film that is very effectively staged. With the Oscar-winning film, AIDS was finally recognized by Hollywood.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Semi-documentary: 'And the Band Played On' (1993)

Whereas "Philadelphia" was a true Hollywood production, "And the Band Played On," released that same year, took a quieter, nearly documentary approach to the AIDS epidemic. Starring Matthew Modine as the young AIDS researcher Dr. Don Francis, the film by Roger Spottiswoode attempted to tell the tale of those infected by including numerous stories.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Controversial: 'Kids' (1995)

Two years later, director Larry Clark put out the teenage drama "Kids," a fictional narrative with a documentary feel. The director highlighted the youth culture in New York in the mid-90s, where sex is on the minds of young boys and girls alike while AIDS lurks in the background. The scenes are drastic and with actors not yet of age, the film created quite a controversy after its release.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Melodramatic: 'All About My Mother' (1999)

What appears to be a standard Pedro Almodóvar film, "All About My Mother," released by the Spanish director in 1999, takes on the lives, loves and sorrows of a handful of protagonists. Set in Madrid and Barcelona, the melodrama addresses gender roles and society's prejudices, with AIDS playing a central role in the film.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

Looking back: 'The Witnesses' (2007)

"The Witnesses" is French director André Téchiné's look back to the 1980s, when the AIDS crisis first came into focus. The movie follows several characters as it shows the disease and its impact on their lives at all stages. The movie was celebrated at the Berlinale for its handling of the AIDS epidemic but wasn't able to make the leap into German theaters, despite stars like Emmanuelle Béart.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

A global perspective: 'Same Same But Different' (2009)

Germany has likewise tackled AIDS as a film subject. Rosa von Praunheim was the first, with his typically anarchistic approach in "A Virus Knows No Morals" in 1986. In 2009, director Detlef Buck took a more worldly view on the global crisis, with "Same Same But Different," which follows the love story between a young German man (David Kross, seen above) and a Cambodia prostitute.

Living and loving with HIV: 10 films that take on AIDS

An actor's film: 'Dallas Buyers Club' (2014)

"Dallas Buyers Club" by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée was widely acclaimed upon its release three years ago. Matthew McConaughey (r.) and Jared Leto are brilliant as two people living with HIV in the 1980s, who are trying to get their hands on the AIDS medications that could prolong their lives. Both actors won nods from the Academy for their roles.