“Stand up and be counted”, Sir Elton John rallies youths at AIDS 2016

Legendary singer Sir Elton John and Prince Harry last week called on youths to “stand up and be counted” in the fight against AIDS.

The two leading AIDS campaigners were speaking at a youth-focused special session on 21 July at the AIDS 2016 conference, held in Durban last week (18-22 July). Addressing hundreds of ecstatic young people, Sir Elton John noted that AIDS was still a leading cause of death among adolescents in Africa and the world.

“Every hour, thirty young people are infected with HIV. However, AIDS-related deaths have dropped among other age groups. In 2014, over 2.1 million young people were living with HIV, and there were more than 250,000 new infections among adolescents. In 2013, 120,000 adolescents died of AIDS-related illnesses,” said the international music icon.

He noted that testing and treatment of adolescents remains low. Children and adolescents below the age of 15 are less likely to receive treatment.

“For adolescents who are able to access treatment, many more challenges remain; among them, stigma and discrimination as well as lack of support,” he said.

He asked the youth to stand up and be counted in the AIDS response.

“Each young person must bring 50 young people to access HIV counseling and treatment,” he said.

He recounted his own experiences of facing up to the risks of HIV. “I was a drug addict and an alcoholic, my life was in shambles but later I discovered that my way of life was wrong. I got touched by the fact that many people were dying of this horrible disease and I needed to do something about it,” Sir Elton said.

He added: “Today, HIV is a treatable disease and no longer the death sentence it was ten years ago, but we cannot grow complacent in our fight to eradicate it completely.

“If our efforts decrease, anti-viral drug resistance will resurface, transmission rates will again rise, and this horrible disease, which knows no boundaries, will once again become a ruthless pandemic with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.”

Sir Elton John described Prince Harry as a credible person who will champion the response towards HIV just like his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales.

Prince Harry’s charity Sentebale in South Africa already focuses on supporting HIV+ young people in the city of Lesotho, but the Prince now aims to spread the message to his generation that the fight against HIV has not yet been won.

Prince Harry said: “It is time for us to step up to make sure no young person feels any shame in asking for an HIV test. It is time for us to step up to make sure that girls and boys with HIV aren’t kept from playing with their friends, classmates, and neighbours. It is time for us to step up and acknowledge that stigma and discrimination still act as the greatest barrier to us defeating this disease once and for all.”

Prince Harry’s late mother Diana, Princess of Wales was the first member of the royal family to have contact with a person suffering from HIV.

The two icons then left personal messages on a Pro-Test HIV wall following their moving speeches.

In a related development, The Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) and the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) last week also announced the first two recipients of The LGBT Fund. The inaugural recipients are the International HIV/AIDS Alliance (The Alliance) and the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF). These partners are to administer small grants and provide key technical expertise addressing stigma and discrimination through innovative and community-led approaches in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.