Feature story

UNAIDS Executive Director highlights Australia’s role in the Pacific AIDS response

27 August 2010

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé (left) delivered a speech at the Lowy Institute for International Policy as part of its “Distinguished Speaker Series” and met with the Institute’s Executive Director, Dr. Michael Wesley (right). Credit: Lowy Institute

On the first day of a five day visit to Australia, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, commended the country for its role as a key partner in the AIDS response in the Pacific region.

“Australia is helping us move the AIDS agenda forward in the Pacific region. The country understands the HIV epidemic’s regional dynamics,” said Mr. Sidibé. “For example I was just in Papua New Guinea and I saw how Australia’s commitment is bringing results.”

In 2008, Australia provided three-quarters of HIV assistance in the region. This included a US $38 million grant to Papua New Guinea, which is one of the most heavily affected countries by HIV in the region.

On day one of his visit, Mr. Sidibé delivered a speech at the Lowy Institute for International Policy as part of its “Distinguished Speaker Series”. He also met with the Institute’s Executive Director, Dr. Michael Wesley, and the Director of its HIV/AIDS project, Mr. Bill Bowtell.

“Mr. Sidibe’s visit helps us to recommit to the core principles of the Australian response to HIV – the strong partnership between all Australian governments, affected communities and clinicians and researchers to ensure the highest standards of care and treatment for people living with HIV and, above all, sustained prevention education activity directed at young people,” said Mr. Bowtell. “The Australian HIV/AIDS partnership greatly admires and supports Mr, Sidibé’s outstanding leadership and his support for much greater investment in effective HIV prevention activity nationally, regionally and internationally. We must continue to invest in these programmes”.

A recent UNAIDS and Zogby International poll finds that while AIDS may have faded from some countries’ headlines, it is a top health priority for Australians. The survey shows that 89% of Australians say AIDS is one of the most important issues facing the world today. However, only 41.5% felt that AIDS was a problem within their own country.

While Australia has a HIV prevalence of 0.2% among adults (aged 15-49), which is substantially lower than in several European countries and North America, there are groups more at risk of infection. Between 2004 and 2008, men who have sex with men made up 68% of newly diagnosed cases of HIV. Transmission during injecting drug use is responsible for a relatively modest share of new HIV infections, which is linked to the early adoption of evidence-informed harm reduction programmes.

One service that aims to continue to reduce HIV infection among drug users is Sydney’s Medically Supervised Injecting Centre. This pilot project first opened in May 2001 in the city’s Kings Cross district, where drug overdose deaths were concentrated. Mr. Sidibé visited the centre with its Director, Dr. Marianne Jauncey.

“I congratulate the New South Wales Government for this initiative which is a model for the region,” said Mr. Sidibé. “We have sound scientific evidence that shows providing a package of comprehensive harm reduction services to people who inject drugs prevents HIV infection.”

During his trip, Mr. Sidibé will attend the 63rd UN DPI/NGO conference in Melbourne as well as meet with government officials in Canberra.