Feature story

UNHCR reflects on progress and remaining challenges on World AIDS Day

02 December 2008

UNHCR marked World AIDS Day by reflecting on successes in the agency’s AIDS response while recognizing that there is still a long way to go. UNHCR is a cosponsor of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Afghan refugee returnees from Pakistan attend an awareness session on HIV at a UNHCR transit centre. Credit: UNHCR/M.Maguire

A senior UNHCR official said on Monday that while the UN refugee agency had made progress in responding to the challenges of HIV among displaced populations in recent years, there is still a long way to go.

“UNHCR’s HIV and AIDS programmes have come a long way,” said Arnauld Akodjenou, head of UNHCR’s Division of Operational Services, in a special World AIDS Day message for staff. “HIV remains one of the policy priorities of the High Commissioner [for Refugees António Guterres] and protection remains the cornerstone of UNHCR’s HIV and AIDS strategy.”

Akodjenou noted that “Today, we have reached nearly 100 percent coverage in universal precautions in health clinics in refugee camps and safe blood supply to refugees; [while] access to programmes for prevention of mother-to-child transmission increased to more than 60 percent.”

Universal precautions refers to the medical practice, of avoiding contact with patients' bodily fluids such as wearing gloves when collecting or handling blood and body fluids.

He also revealed that anti-retroviral therapy is now available to UNHCR beneficiaries in many refugee camps, and that its coverage for refugees increased to 75 percent in 2008.

But serious challenges remain. “We need to scale up efforts in HIV prevention, care and treatment for our staff, refugees and other persons of concern. We need to work closer with communities to develop community-based HIV prevention and care initiatives while continuing to tackle stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV. We also need to ensure medical confidentiality in all circumstances,” said Akodjenou.

“Each of us should contribute in our own way to fighting HIV and AIDS. This may include advocating for the inclusion of refugees and other displaced persons in national HIV policies and programmes, tackling the social and economic inequalities and injustices, and protecting and promoting human rights.”

As part of a larger campaign to ensure that policymakers keep their promises on AIDS, this year’s World AIDS Day theme is "Lead – Empower – Deliver." UNHCR offices around the world marked the occasion with a range of events, and many offices reflected on the success of current programmes – such as the launch of a major awareness and prevention campaign in south-east Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The landmark campaign in Katanga province kicked off in October, when a travelling roadshow visited the town of Moba, on Lake Tanganyika, and the surrounding areas. Staff from UNHCR and partner organizations distributed information about HIV, provided training and offered locals free HIV testing and counselling.

Since 2006, when UNHCR set up field offices in Katanga, tens of thousands of people have returned to their homes from overseas or other parts of the province. But they remain at risk to disease, including HIV, said Philippe Creppy, head of UNHCR’s Moba office.

The campaign in Katanga, which will enlist the help of traditional chiefs and local health workers, will spread awareness about the vital importance of prevention and will also encourage people to take part in free HIV testing and counseling services. The young will be a particular focus. UNHCR will also work with civil society to design and implement HIV programmes.

Creppy said UNHCR and its partners hoped that free counselling and testing, together with the training of medical staff and the development of health facilities and comprehensive policies, would help “put the brakes on the rapid development of this scourge in the territory.” Those who test positive for HIV and who need treatment will receive anti-retroviral drugs.

The campaign, involving more than a dozen non-governmental organizations, will gradually be extended to the rest of the DRC and is scheduled to last five years.

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