By the Rev. Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Cartitas Internationalis Special Adviser on HIV/AIDS, and Ms. Aurorita Mendoza, CI volunteer in Geneva

As the days begin to wind down at the 19th International AIDS Conference, we’re hearing the good news – about an HIV-free generation, seeing the end of the epidemic, more and more people now receiving ARV treatment.  And indeed, the optimism has some basis. But let’s go a bit more deeply into both the progress and the challenges posed during this conference …

 Much scientific progress has been made.  The virus can be kept in check with a range of better medications, which are effective both for treatment and for preventing further spread of the disease. The hope of discovering an HIV vaccine has been boosted by some initial results of a vaccine trial in Thailand; it showed only guarded results for protection of people from HIV infection but at least it renewed our expectations that one day a broad-based vaccine will become available. Then we received during this conference the new World Health Organization guidelines regarding ARV treatments for pregnant women; following these should effectively reduce the transmission of the virus from mother to child.

Even more impressive have been results from different initiatives at the country and community levels.  The UNAIDS report, entitled Together we will end AIDS and released during this conference, demonstrates the decline of HIV prevalence in some countriesThis is largely due to efforts at providing better access to health care for all sectors in the population, including rural and marginalized groups, and due to efforts to eliminate the rejection of people living with or affected by HIV. The Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2014 and keeping their mothers healthy is showing good progress after a year of implementation. Caritas Internationalis is privileged to play an active role in this initiative, especially with our HAART for Children campaign.

We still have some way to go before we can actually say the job is done.  Nonetheless, we seem to be on the right track.

In northern Uganda, Caritas Slovakia is building a centre for HIV-positive orphans. Photo by Michal Fulier for Caritas Slovakia

But the following question might win the “prize” for being asked most often during the various sessions: Will there be enough funding to sustain AIDS programmes?

During the conference, I was invited to join other faith leaders in a meeting with the Interim Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. He told us that the Fund is  again on steady waters and announced additional funding for the 2012-2014 period. He promised there will be changes in procedures and funding cycles that will certainly affect implementation on the ground.  PEPFAR funding is expected to diminish, but we were reassured that the US Congress will continue to re-authorize it.

However, there still is reason for concern.  With faith-based communities counting on external support, we are experiencing funding cuts that compromise the reach and quality of our services. Much work by religious organizations has been supported by the Global Fund (GF) and PEPFAR. Christoph Benn of the Global Fund reported in the Catholic pre-conference that, since the Fund was initiated, faith-based organizations (FBOs) have received over US $645 million in GF grants in 77 countries.  In PEPFAR-supported countries, FBOs have been key implementing partners.  But the funders also brought the sobering news that increases in funding are not likely given the climate of the global economic crisis. Representatives of faith-based organizations candidly shared that they are being told to “do more with less” and then  pointed out that this is not possible when 8 million more people need to get access to medicines if we want to save their lives.

During the intense funding debates held during the conference, it became more and more clear that we cannot expect to support the research, prevention, and treatment demands over the next few years by relying on international funding alone.  So a strong call was issued, even to governments in developing countries, to increase domestic spending on AIDS programmes. UNAIDS reported that, between 2006 and 2011, some 80 countries had increased their domestic investments for AIDS by more than 50%. The responsibility is shifting.  National ownership is essential to take charge both of AIDS financing and programming.