Addressing the HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Working in partnership will be key, says Alex Kalomparis, vice president, public affairs, international at Gilead Sciences.

2021 marks 40 years since the first cases of HIV were reported. In that time, over 79 million people have been diagnosed with HIV, with more than 36 million dying from AIDS-related illnesses, more than any other infectious disease.

While there has been incredible progress in the HIV response, nearly 38 million people are living with HIV, with more than a million new cases every year, jeopardising the goal to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

HIV places enormous burdens on the communities it affects most, straining health systems and government budgets. In the era of the global COVID-19 pandemic, where health systems are already stretched to breaking, it is tempting to cut costs in other areas, including HIV. If commitment to the HIV response wanes, the progress we have made is at risk, leading to increases in new infections in regions that can least afford to tackle them.

“An epidemic somewhere is an epidemic everywhere”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the temptation to focus on one’s own backyard, isolate oneself from the rest of the world, and believe one is safe and protected. We know now that this protection is an illusion. Regardless of the protections we erect in our own countries, allowing public health crises to persist in other parts of the world threatens our own progress and safety.

The message is clear: an epidemic somewhere is an epidemic everywhere. To find our way out of a pandemic, we must broaden our ideas of how to respond, and address the problems and inequities that allow diseases to thrive in other parts of the world. To be effective, our response must be global.

The same is true for HIV. HIV has persisted for 40 years, and is still here because root problems continue to drive the epidemic: stigma and discrimination, poverty, lack of access to services and treatments, lack of access to education, and the marginalisation of the people and communities most at risk of HIV. These are not issues that can be addressed by any one government, group, or company. They can be addressed only in partnership with one another, and by engaging those key marginalised communities in our effort to end the HIV epidemic.

Whilst the global community has the tools it needs to meaningfully address new HIV infections, HIV is on the rise in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA). Unlike other regions in the world, rates of HIV in EECA have increased, with infections up by 72 per cent, and AIDS-related deaths up by 24 per cent since 2010.

Working with the Elton John AIDS Foundation

However, across EECA, a range of community partners are making significant contributions in the fight against HIV, such as the first wave of the RADIAN ‘Unmet Need’ fund and Model City grantees, previously announced in 2020. In the first nine months of the programme, these partners have already reached more than 12,000 people from vulnerable communities directly with services, initiating life-saving care in over 2,000 people living with HIV.

RADIAN, a ground-breaking partnership between Gilead Sciences and the Elton John AIDS Foundation, works with local experts to target new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in EECA in the communities most vulnerable to HIV.

Focusing on the groups most affected by HIV in EECA (eg men who have sex with men, transgender people, sex workers, and people who use drugs), RADIAN engages with groups led by these communities and are sensitive to the difficulties unique to the region.

“We all have one common goal: ending HIV”

Anne Aslett, CEO of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, is clear that for the partnership to reach its goals, it’s crucial to listen to and amplify the voices of people for whom HIV is a tangible, daily reality.

“They understand better than anyone the challenges associated with the virus, and what works to stop it. No matter where we are in the world, we must partner with them, and follow their leadership. We are proud of our RADIAN partnership with Gilead, to champion the vital work of communities to bring an end to the AIDS epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.”

Companies like Gilead Sciences provide industry leading expertise, while Governments bring an understanding of health systems and funding, developing an infrastructure that enables access.

However, these efforts need community leadership because they know best how to ensure people can access those systems to get tested, and adhere to medication. They understand the fears and sensitivities, the strengths and stigma within those communities, the nuances that make the difference in linking their members to the care they need. No two regions of the world experience the ‘same’ HIV epidemic. People living with HIV are critical to the success of any HIV response.

This autumn, RADIAN will launch a campaign telling the inspirational stories of ordinary, yet remarkable, community members who are taking action to turn the tide of the HIV epidemic in EECA.

We all have one common goal: ending HIV. It is crucial that we all understand the role we can play to achieve this. Our access to global networks of public health expertise, government funding, and innovative HIV treatments are meaningless unless they are used in service of people living with, and at risk of, HIV. They are the core of any successful response, regardless of country or region. Working in partnership with them is the key to ending HIV. By respecting them as leaders and giving them the seat at the head of the table, we make our work more effective and responsive to local needs, bringing us closer to the end of the HIV epidemic globally.

About the author 

Alex Kalomparis Alex Kalomparis is vice president, public affairs, international at Gilead Sciences. He joined the company in January 2017 and is responsible for all communications and patient advocacy activities across Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Prior to that Alex held senior communication roles with a number of consumer and pharmaceutical companies, including Unilever, Rolls Royce, Novartis, Roche, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline.