ICASA 2011 kicks off in a Colorful Ceremony - Ibekwe Alexander

Heads of State and Government, former presidents, first ladies, members of parliaments, ministers, high level representatives of UN agencies, donors, members of the diplomatic corps, renowned scientists, NGOs, PLHIV, and civil society gathered yesterday at the Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa for the opening ceremony of the 16th International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa (ICASA 2011). The five-day conference under the theme ‘Own, Scale-up and Sustain’ is expected to actively engage participants through high-level plenary sessions, satellite sessions, skill building sessions, poster exhibition and various side events.

In welcoming the participants, Dr. Yigermu Abebe, President of ICASA 2011 said, “Welcome to the 16th ICASA, which has been organized by the Government of Ethiopia in conjunction with the Society for AIDS in Africa (SAA), various institutional and community partners as well as the private sector.”

ICASA 2011 takes place at a pivotal time - thirty years since the first case of AIDS was detected; ten years since the landmark UN General Assembly Special Session on AIDS, where world leaders declared AIDS as a “global emergency” and called for an “urgent, coordinated and sustained response” to the epidemic; and ten years since the Abuja Declaration on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and other Infectious Diseases.

President of the Society for AIDS in Africa (SAA), Professor Robert Soudre said, “Once again the forefront stakeholders in the response to HIV and AIDS in Africa are meeting in Addis Ababa to address our common enemy - the HIV epidemic and related diseases”.

The Society for AIDS in Africa (SAA) Council has selected Ethiopia to host the 16th ICASA, based on interest expressed by the Ethiopian Government to host the Conference, as well as meeting a set of criteria including adequate logistics, security, communications, accommodation and conference venue. Ethiopia officially accepted the offer during a signing ceremony of the Memorandum of Understanding between the SAA and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, represented by the Federal Ministry of Health in July 2009 in Lagos, Nigeria.

In recent years, significant progress has been made in the AIDS response in sub-Saharan Africa. The total number of new HIV infections in the region has declined by more than 26%, from 2.6 million [2.4 million-2.8 million] to 1.9 million [1.7 million-2.1 million] since the peak of the epidemic in 1997.

Confirming this, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel SidibĂ© said, “Over the past decade, Africa has made remarkable progress in its HIV response”.

Never the less, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region most heavily affected by HIV. In 2010, an estimated 68% of all people living with HIV resided in sub-Saharan Africa, a region with only 12% of the global population.

“With strengthened political will and increased resources, I am confident that countries across the continent will reach our common goal of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths,” Dr. SidibĂ© added.

In his key note address on behalf of the people and Government of Ethiopia at the official opening, H.E. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian Prime Minister, said, “It is my distinct pleasure to welcome all delegates to Addis Ababa and the 16th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA 2011). We are honored to be hosting this major international gathering at this critical juncture in the countdown to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Three decades following the discovery of AIDS, ICASA 2011 provides an important opportunity to take stock of the significant progress made as well as the challenges we still face in reversing the epidemic in countries across our continent”.

“This year’s theme is a particularly fitting one at this critical time. Against the backdrop of growing global economic uncertainty, it is vital that African countries develop innovative and sustainable strategies for mobilizing new resources—human, intellectual, and material — with a view to fortifying and sustaining our response to the epidemic over the coming years. Indeed, the challenge now is for Africa to Own, Scale-up and Sustain the fight and build on the successes of the past to finally turn the tide of the epidemic through greater containment and significantly lower new infections,” the prime minister noted.

A decade ago, HIV prevalence among the 15 to 24 age group in Ethiopia was 12.4%. Today, this figure has stabilized at 2.4%. In 2005, fewer than 1,000 Ethiopians had access to lifesaving antiretroviral therapy (ART). Today, over 333 thousand Ethiopians, an estimated 66%, of those in need are receiving ART.

Dr. Yigeremu Abebe, President of ICASA 2011, highlighted the significance of the conference for Africa and Ethiopia. “This year’s ICASA promises to be unique in that awards will be given to the best abstracts presented by young investigators below the age of 35. This recognition aims to encourage scientific research in Africa, which is currently facing challenges,” he said.Early in the day The ICASA community village was also open. The community village is a melting pot of all cultures to informally exchange ideas and ways forward not only in the HIV and AIDS response, but also other socioeconomic issues.

At the official opening, H.E Ato Kuma Demekisa expressed his warm welcome to the delegates and wished a successful deliberation over the conference period. Similarly, the former president of USA – Mr. George Bush Jr. addressed the gathering.

Mr. Bush was also recognized with an award for his support in the HIV and AIDS response. On the occasion H.E Dr. Tedros Adhanom, Ethiopian Minister of Health, expressed his gratitude to Mr. Bush. This was followed by President Bush receiving his award from H.E Ato Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister.

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Hon. Ibekwe Alexander
Director, Health Link Org.
South East Secretary
National Youth Council of Nigeria (NYCN)
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