I have just survived one of the most intense weeks of my life at 6th IAS conference on HIV pathogenesis, treatment and prevention in Rome, my native city.
It has been exciting, emotional and exhausting to be here. I was diagnosed in Rome over 14 years ago. At that time I was not given any referral to any positive women’s group or psychological support. The isolation and the lack of support I experienced lead to the worst two years of my life, completely locked in deep depression, shame and stigma. It is difficult to describe the overwhelming feelings of getting back here as an openly HIV positive woman and as part of a global movement of women living with HIV.
Every time I spoke publicly, during the conference, I introduced myself as an Italian woman with HIV who had been diagnosed here in Rome. I felt it was an important political statement to make. I believe that being visible and vocal as a woman with HIV is a crucial strategy in order to have our rights to be treated with dignity and respect upheld.
During this week I discovered that Italy has the largest number of women living with HIV in Europe: 48,000, to be precise. During the Town Hall meeting we organized, Rosaria Iardino, one of the leaders of the movement of people living with HIV in Italy, denounced how women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights are still violated in my country of birth. Rosaria told us how women with HIV in Italy are still often ‘strongly advised’ to have abortions. Just a couple of weeks ago, a young positive woman, in Sicily received a lot of pressure from her gynaecologist to end her pregnancy, because she is HIV positive. Thanks to the intervention of Network Persone Sieropositive (NPS) this young woman was informed of her rights, and legal action has been taken against the doctor. She has now chosen she will have the baby. I know that many women, especially if they are depressed and isolated, will not have the initiative of reaching out to networks of people with HIV. This is why our visibility and voice is important, so that those women, who are most isolated, can be reached. This is why I almost say in in one breath, when I introduce myself: I am Silvia Petretti, I am an Italian woman living with HIV.
Within this context, I was horrified at the opening ceremony when the line up of official speakers, a total of six, didn’t include a woman. I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut and I started screaming: ‘Where are the women? Dove sono le donne? 52% of those living with HIV are women! Why are we not on stage?”. I think a few people thought I was raving mad, but also a lot of people thought that it was about times somebody spoke up.
Thankfully the closing ceremony had a different tone with Alessandra Cerioli, the President of LILA, and Lella on stage giving a very strong speech, calling for the continuing funding of HIV research. During the speech Alessandra mentioned the work that the Women Networking Zone has done to bring 20 young positive women activists to the conference, and the crucial importance of promoting gender equity in the response to the HIV epidemic. Alessandra also asked for the Pope to bless the prevention revolution that was announced at this conference: people with HIV who are successfully on treatment will not transmit HIV 96% of the time. This is a rate of protection greater than condoms, which are reported to be 85% effective. It means that we can finally say: treatment is prevention! Please Pope Benedict give your blessings to us so that we can have the money to put it into practice!!!
The closing session had also another major highlight for me. This was Dr. Adaora A. Adimora from the United States, who was the rapportuer on the prevention track in the conference. Dr Adaora summarized all the incredible scientific evidence presented regarding prevention. Most Importantly Dr Adaora also included gender equity as a key structural intervention, alongside biomedical interventions, to end the HIV epidemic. It is exhilarating to have the scientific community finally aligned with what us, women living with HIV have been saying for a long time. It is truly a prevention revolution!
This IAS conference has finally shown that we have the tools to reverse the HIV epidemic, now we need the money. To know more about the scientific evidence presented at IAS I recommend the NAM website