OPINION: World AIDS Day falls before Chanukah – let’s shine a light on ignorance

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OPINION: World AIDS Day falls before Chanukah – let’s shine a light on ignorance

Chen Shmilo, General Director of Israel AIDS Task Force, reflects on the need to raise awareness of the condition

Chen Shmilo

Chen Shmilo is General Director of Israel AIDS Task Force

Chanukah candles in the dark
Chanukah candles in the dark

Each year on 1 December countries around the globe mark World AIDS Day, to remember those who died from AIDS and raise awareness of current HIV prevention and treatment. While HIV/AIDS medicine has made significant progress throughout the years since the disease was identified, people who live with HIV still suffer from discrimination and exclusion in their communities, due to very low public awareness – or simply prejudice.

This year, World AIDS Day falls just one day before the first candle of Chanukah is lit. The historic events that this beautiful holiday commemorates help us recall and recognise Jewish heroism and new hope for our people. World AIDS Day, too, has strong themes of heroism and new hope.

For me, there couldn’t be a more symbolic time to come to London to join West London Synagogue and the London Gay Men Chorus for the annual World AIDS Day memorial service and concert – not just to commemorate the bravery of those who fought (and still do) against the epidemic and its social consequences in the UK and Israel, but also to shed a light of hope and optimism onto all people who are still in this continuous fight. This light is much needed, in many places around the world, to illuminate and help us repair and bring about much-needed improvement in this field.

In Israel, the IATF’s commitment to Tikkun Olam (Healing the World) starts with tackling discrimination against people who live with HIV. It continues with community-based activities to prevent new infections and to encourage the public, but most importantly people who belong to groups at risk, to get tested and diagnosed as early as possible. IATF also advocates for a new updated national programme in Israel that will aim high, for a more dramatic reduction of new infections every year. This would be achieved by adopting new evidence-based public health tools, such as accessible PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis) for relevant people, plus mandatory HIV screening for pregnant women.

Chen Shmilo

IATF is proud to serve disadvantaged groups that are at high risk of HIV, such as Israeli citizens who came from Ethiopia, and asylum seekers, mostly from Eritreia and Sudan. These two groups deserve equal access to HIV testing and treatment, as well as health education in their own languages and in a culture-friendly setting.

With this in mind, IATF has two designated sections that focus on these groups, each led by experts who are native speakers and who themselves belong to these under-served communities. The Ministry of Health and the UN Refugee Agency are vital partners, as they have allocated a small budget that enables us to put together an intervention program for asylum seekers. However, more resources are needed to address various HIV related issues among this community, notably that some of the asylum-seekers living in Israel with HIV are still not entitled to free treatment.

The importance of my visit to Britain this week is that it gives us an opportunity to exchange views and knowledge with high-level public health experts and with leading HIV/AIDS British organisations. Thanks to the Israeli Embassy in London, we plan to hold a round-table to discuss current challenges in this field, and even to consider future collaborations.

And as the icing on the cake, we’ll be discussing a wonderful collaboration with The London Gay Men’s Chorus and are planning for the Chorus to visit Israel for a fund-raising and friend-raising concert tour in 2020.

Lastly, this visit is a very welcome opportunity to strengthen ties between IATF, West London Synagogue and the Embassy of Israel in the UK, to contribute to one of the most important ongoing fights in the arena of public health in both countries.

  • Chen Shmilo is General Director of Israel AIDS Task Force
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