MELBOURNE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries should not be allowed to get away with repressive laws that reinforce discrimination against groups of people at high risk of HIV, speakers told a global AIDS conference, which opened on Sunday, despite being marred by tragedy.
Emotional tributes were paid during the opening ceremony to six delegates who were heading to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne when their plane was shot down over Ukraine three days ago.
Nobel laureate Francoise Barre-Sinoussi led a moment of silence to remember the 298 people killed when the Malaysian Airlines plane was brought down in an area where Russian-backed separatists are fighting government forces.
"Let our silence represent our sadness, our anger and our solidarity," she told the gathering of 12,000 AIDS activists, scientists and people living with HIV.
Though the mood was sombre, Barre-Sinoussi and other speakers used the platform to urge the global community to step up the pace on action to prevent, treat and test for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
The number of people living with HIV rose to 35 million in 2013, reflecting great strides in recent years in developing life-prolonging combination AIDS drugs and getting them to the people who need them.
UNAIDS estimates that 14 million people had access to antiretroviral therapy by July, compared with the only 5 million who were getting AIDS drugs in 2010. New HIV infections have fallen by 38 percent since 2001 and deaths caused by AIDS have fallen 35 percent to 1.5 million in 2013 from a peak of 2.4 million in 2005.
But experts say sex workers, men who have sex with men, prisoners, drug users and transgender people consistently are being left behind, partly because of policies and laws that criminalise them.
"The cruel reality is that in every region of the world, stigma and discrimination continue to be the main barriers to effective access to health," said virologist Barre-Sinoussi, who won a 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her part in identifying HIV and is also president of the International AIDS Society.
"We need to shout again, that we will not stand idly by when governments in violation of human rights principles are enforcing monstrous laws that only marginalise populations that are already the most vulnerable in society," she added.
In January, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan signed into law legislation criminalising same-sex relationships.
A month later Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni approved a bill that strengthened existing punishments for anyone caught having gay sex, imposed jail terms of up to life for "aggravated homosexuality" and criminalised lesbianism for the first time.
The head of UNAIDS Michel Sidibe said the needs of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, sex workers, drug users and prisoners should not be ignored.
Calling for an end to AIDS by 2030, Sidibe said he hoped that by 2020, 90 percent of the world's population would be tested for HIV, that 90 percent of those people living with HIV would receive treatment and that 90 percent would have an undetected viral load - in other words, a presence of the HIV virus in the blood so low as to be undetectable.
"We have a fragile five-year window of opportunity. If we're smart and scale up fast by 2020, we'll be on track to end the epidemic by 2030," Sidibe told the conference.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org)