Almost no Science from Nigeria at International Conference on AIDS

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Finally, the moment came – The 21st International Conference on AIDS kicked off in Durban, South Africa on the 18th of July, the birthday of Nelson Mandela. With the largest number of registered delegates at a health conference, it has been a refreshing and yet challenging start. The efficiency of the organisers, the warmth of the hosts, the vibrancy of Durban all combined to create an atmosphere of expectation at the conference themed “Access Equity Rights Now”.

 

A full house at the opening ceremony of the #AIDS2016 Conference in Durban, South Africa, as the crowd listens to Arch. Bishop Desmond Tutu's address. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
A full house at the opening ceremony of the #AIDS2016 Conference in Durban, South Africa, as the crowd listens to Arch. Bishop Desmond Tutu’s address. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

 

Durban to Durban: South Africa’s Success Story

South African Deputy President (centre) with other special guests at a press conference during #AIDS2016. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
South African Deputy President (centre left) with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and other special guests at a press conference during #AIDS2016. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

With the Deputy President of South Africa, His Excellency Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa,  leading the opening ceremony, the progress South Africa had made between the first conference in 2000 and this year was the focus of many speeches. It is no mean feat – with 3.4 million people on treatment, costing the South African government $1.2B annually, it is by far the largest treatment programme in the world. South Africa is seeing the results: life expectancy has increased by over 10 years and mother – to – child transmission of HIV reduced by 85% from 90,000 per year to 5,000. Coming from a dark period of AIDS denialism of the Thabo Mbeki era 20 years ago – South Africa has indeed come a long way. South Africans must be proud.

Kweku Mandela, Nelson Mandela's grandson, has continued in the spirit of his grandfather's activism. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
Kweku Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, has continued in the spirit of his grandfather’s activism. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

The highlight of the moving opening ceremony, however, was Charlize Theron, a South African-born movie star, introduced by Kweku Mandela (Mandela’s grandson – note this name). Charlize pulled no punches when she said that despite all the progress made, we were far from a point of celebration.

 

 

 

 

 

South African Actress Charlize Theron gave a powerful message at the Opening Ceremony of the AIDS2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
South African Actress Charlize Theron gave a powerful message at the Opening Ceremony of the AIDS2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Searching for Nigeria at #AIDS2016

Nigeria got a small mention during the opening ceremony, as the beautiful and talented musician Waje joined three other African vocalists to perform the song – “Strong girl”.

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The Global Village highlighted HIV/AIDS community activism. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
The Global Village highlighted HIV/AIDS community activism. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

The previous evening had seen the opening of the Global Village. The International AIDS Conference is known for its intersection of science, advocacy and activism, and this one was no different. The community village is full of exhibitions of projects being delivered in communities across the continent, targeting all infected and affected populations.  As we worked around the stands of the community organisations and exhibitors showcasing the work that they do, we searched for something, anything from Nigeria- but found nothing. Is there really nothing to share? This was the first indication that Nigeria would be largely absent from this conference.

Stalls of different countries at the Global Village, #AIDS2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
Stalls of different countries at the Global Village, #AIDS2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

However, the biggest source of sadness was in searching the abstract submissions looking for presentations and posters from Nigerian colleagues. We found only a tiny handful.  With an estimated 3.5 million Nigerians infected, the second largest burden of HIV on the continent and over 50 universities, it is astonishing how little we are contributing to the body of evidence relating to HIV/AIDS. We seem to be consolidating our place as primarily a consumer country.

A few Nigerian delegates at the AIDS 2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
A few Nigerian delegates at the AIDS 2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

In addition to our almost complete absence from the science, we are also missing from the policy and advocacy space. While some members of civil society are in Durban, they all appear to be attendees rather than conveners. We meet on the corridors of the conference, exchange the usual banter and hope, as we always do – that things will get better in Nigeria.

 

In the meantime at the conference, we heard extensively from members of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a civil society organisation in South Africa championing the movement for the treatment of poor and disadvantaged South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Their voice was loud and their actions were resolute as they led a march on City Hall in Durban to bring attention to their cause, #Treatment4All, and to ask those in governance to increase funding for HIV/AIDS treatment.

TAC flyers advertising the March during the AIDS 2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
TAC flyers advertising the March during the AIDS 2016 Conference. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

We, however, heard that there are a few events that included Nigerians, and did run into one event on the first day organised by Nigerians. Kids & Teens Resource Centre, which runs projects in Ondo, Ekiti, Kwara and Plateau states, convened a panel discussion at the Global Village of the conference that explored ways men can play stronger roles in the support and care of HIV patients. Folashade Bamigboye, the convener of the discussion, said that in their work with kids and teens, they realised that there were many more female caregivers than there were male. The panel discussion was born out of the desire to increase the number of men that provide care and support for HIV patients in Nigeria and around the world. Panel discussants included Bamigboye, Martin Mary Falana, E.D. Kids & Teens Resource Centre, Moses Okpara of the Country Coordinating Mechanism for TB and HIV, and Yemisi Ogundare of FHI360.

Members of the Nigerian discussion panel on increasing the number of men who provide care and support services for HIV. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
Members of the Nigerian discussion panel on increasing the number of men who provide care and support services for HIV. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

There is no doubt that the tight financial situation in Nigeria has led to less support being available to attend conferences. But, the paucity of engagement really is a strange situation, given that the conference is being hosted in Africa and provides a unique opportunity for scientists to share their most recent findings. Most critically, this AIDS conference is a chance for civil society to meet and engage with governments and donors where decisions that change lives are often made. There is the obvious opportunity for networking and sharing information on what works, so we do not all repeat the same mistakes.

A unique Global Health Conference

The International AIDS Conference is no ordinary conference. It is the largest conference on any global health or development issue in the world. Unlike most other medical conferences that focus only on the science, it provides a unique forum for the intersection of science, advocacy, and human rights – bringing scientists together with advocates, people living with HIV together with policy makers. Creators and curators of science come together with consumers. Sadly, Nigeria remains largely with the consumers.

The AIDS 2016 Conference is a confluence of science, advocacy and activism. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch
The AIDS 2016 Conference is a confluence of science, advocacy and activism. Photo Credit: Nigeria Health Watch

Some of the key scientific issues that are emerging include progress towards a cure or sustained remission of HIV infection. Although, this has not yet been achieved, there is an increasing body of knowledge on this. But by far the most important emerging issue is the lack of progress in reducing the number of new infections in adults, currently at about 2 million per year.

Are we reaching an inflection point with HIV/AIDS?  We will answer this question, when we share the highlights of the conference in our next blog. Stick with us…

More photos of the first few days at the AIDS 2016 Conference.

Discussion9 Comments

  1. Dr Bupwatda Pokop Wushipba

    Thank you so much for your coverage of the AIDS conference in Durban. Nigeria has been very active when it comes to AIDS conferences and we have researches that are carried out by Nigerians in Nigeria, I am so surprised that our country is not very visible in Durban. Where is NACA and the civil society organizations?. Where is APIN, IHVN? and other partners working in the field for years? Kindly do a follow-up to some of these organizations I mentioned to know why they are not visibly represented in Durban? Thank you once more for your report.

  2. Did you know that Nigeria has tested more than 21 million adults who received their result from 2012 to 2015?
    Did you know that on annual basis Nigeria has put 100,000 new people living with HIV on treatment from 2012 to 2015? Nigeria can double the number of people on treatment in 2016 by putting the 900,000 people on pre-treatment cohort reaching 1.8 million people on ART
    Did you know that at the end of 2015 a 59% of all Nigerians living with HIV know their HIV status?
    Did you know that Nigeria has tested 9 million pregnant women for HIV from 2012 to 2015?

    The challenge I am having is that Nigerian authorities are not promoting their successes and nobody else can do this for them. The good example is the MNCH (Maternal Newborn and Child health) week under the leadership of the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA), where on weekly basis Kaduna State was able to test 126, 000 pregnant form HIV and Benue State 84,000 and more than 85% of all found HIV+ were put on treatment just to illustrate how good the public health performance is in the area of elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Many more examples exist: door-to-door integrated HIV testing by the Red Cross, May Day testing by ILO and Ministry of Labour, etc. There are many successes in Nigeria, it is up to Nigerians to document them and publish them and the sooner the better,

    • Dr. Camara:

      Please allow me to respectfully disagree with you that Nigeria is doing well. Nigeria is among the only two or three countries worldwide not using optimal strategy to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV. The most recent data from UNAIDS notes that less than 40% of HIV+ Nigerians are on HAART. Please be aware of the current UNAIDS Target by 2020…. By 2020 (just four years from today) 90 percent of people with HIV should know their status, 90 percent of diagnosed people should be on treatment, and 90 percent of those on treatment should attain suppressed levels of the virus in their bodies to indicate they are doing well – at least clinically.

      Nigerian current statistics is unparalleled in how bad it is. There are truly no silver linings. Our nation stands with 2-3 other African countries in being among those that are so far behind they show up almost neon colored orange on a map of green to gray colors indicating the stride the African continent is making to control HIV.

      We need to take a really hard look in the mirror and tell ourselves the truth.

  3. I am quite worried at the absence of Nigeria at this Conference. The volume of investment in HIV/AIDS is huge. Nigeria’s absence is condemned. This is becoming a trend now. At the Public Expenditure Financial Accountability Assessment (PEFA) Conference held in Budapest in April, only three independent consultants represented Nigeria!
    Government needs to address this issue urgently.

  4. Pingback: Nigeria conspicuously absent from International Conference AIDS 2016, Durban

  5. Thanks for the awesome reportage. I am aware that quite a number of Nigerian government players ‘planned’ to be at the conference but like you observed, maybe their aim was to be “attendees”. It’s really shameful that Nigeria could not showcase its AIDS programme. However, it may not be unconnected with the usual trend of programmes being donor driven with little or no contribution and accountability within government. So if donors did not sponsor participants, then “No show” for Nigeria! Just thinking….

  6. It is good to see the South African Treatment Action movement still very active. That’s continuity and sustainability, which is something we seriously lack in Nigeria. To me, one of the reasons for the poor showing by Nigeria is that a significant section of NGOs and stakeholders who pioneered and drove the country’s HIV/AIDS response were completely sidelined when Global fund’s support came to the country and have generally been locked out of funding channels. These are competent organisations who were committed, did good work interventions that have been scaled up. They could have added a lot of value to our track record had they been supported to continue. Quite a number of them struggled on for years as best they could. But it is hard to keep going for decades without access to funding.
    The other thing is also inadequate commitment and investment by our government. Compare our performance with that of South Africa. At the time of the 1St Durban Conference and for some years after, South Africa topped the global chart of HIV prevalence (along with India and Nigeria). But today,we don’t match the progress they have made.
    There are serious accountability issues with regards to our HIV/AIDS programming. It is not just about financial accountability; programming as well.

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