Cape Town - As South Africa gears up to host the 21st International Aids Conference in 2016 it is set to put pressure on those African countries that discriminate against homosexuality.

The conference’s new chairwoman denounced such policies as the biggest hurdle in the fight against HIV.

Professor Olive Shisana, chief executive of the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), who will chair the Durban conference, said while sub-Saharan Africa had made impressive gains in fighting the Aids epidemic, stigma and discrimination, mainly perpetuated by African governments, continued to “hinder the implementation of science on the ground”.

“The past three decades of HIV/Aids have taught us that the disease doesn’t discriminate but that people and governments do,” she said.

Shisana said such discrimination “should make us very angry” and would reverse the gains made.

One of the countries heavily criticised for its anti-homosexuality laws is Uganda. This year it introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Act that prohibits any form of sexual relations between persons of the same sex. The law criminalises the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. “Offenders” may be imprisoned for up to seven years.

Shisana said there was a need to “ensure that we end discrimination against men sleeping with men (MSM), transgender populations and people who inject drugs”.

MSM, transgender persons and drug injectors were considered key populations or people who carried the highest risk of HIV/Aids.

While the Aids pandemic had since declined with new HIV infections dropping by 25 percent and Aids deaths falling by 32 percent in the past decade due to the availability of antiretroviral treatment, these key populations had actually seen an increase in HIV.

“We won’t be able to win the Aids battle if we don’t address challenges facing these groups. A renewed engagement with decision-makers across the continent on the issue of human rights will be unavoidable if we are to move towards ending Aids in the (continent) and build on huge gains that we’ve made in the past 15 years,” Shisana said.

Over the next two years she would use her influence in the Social Aspects of HIV and Aids Research Alliance (Sahara), which consisted of leading researchers and policymakers in Africa to influence African leaders.

South Africa is the first African country to host the Aids conference.

At the close of this year’s conference in Melbourne, Professor Chris Beyrer, the new president of the International Aids Society (IAS), also cautioned about the wave of discriminatory laws in Africa, saying they were “setting us back towards exclusion: limiting rights, reducing health care access and aiding and abetting the virus”.

Beyrer said the next conference would be held in South Africa in an effort to close the gap that still remained between the HIV/Aids in the developed and the developing worlds.

Despite significant gains, South Africa remained the world’s most infected country with KwaZulu-Natal the worst affected province, particularly for women.

He described the 2000 Aids conference as the watershed in the fight against the disease as ARVs had just been developed, and people who were on their deathbeds were recovering.

Whereas in 2000 South Africa had only about 5 percent of patients on treatment, Beyrer said, 2016 would find South Africa leading the world in Aids treatment, with the biggest number of people on treatment. About 2.4 million were being treated in South Africa with the number set to jump to 4.6 million in 2016.

Cape Argus