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Elton John: We have the drugs to end this disease

Elton John, founder of The Elton John AIDS Foundation, speaks to CNN's Max Foster about global attitudes toward AIDS and efforts to eradicate it.

Posted: Jul 25, 2018 11:18 AM
Updated: Jul 25, 2018 11:46 AM

Among scourges like malaria, diabetes and cancer, AIDS is "the only disease that could legitimately be ended in our lifetime," if only old-fashioned attitudes and society could be changed, Elton John said Tuesday.

At the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, the 71-year-old musician and activist told CNN of his frustration at the lack of compassion and humanity toward groups most affected by HIV, such as LGBT communities. The stigma they face causes them to miss out on life-saving testing and treatment, he said.

John believes that the UNAIDS target of ending AIDS by 2030 could be hit with the help of allies such as Britain's Prince Harry, whose "passion for HIV" he described as an asset in the fight. US President Donald Trump could be key too if he shows support for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, to "keep the foot on the accelerator" rather than making cuts to the successful bipartisan program.

"Maybe he could be the president of the United States who ends AIDS altogether. Why not?" John asked, adding that "no disease has had scientific progress like this disease."

"Nobody needs to die of AIDS anymore."

Memories of Diana

On Tuesday morning, John took to the stage at the conference with Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, to launch a $1.2 billion partnership with the Elton John AIDS Foundation and PEPFAR called the MenStar Coalition. It will work creatively to boost HIV diagnosis and treatment among young men, focusing on those 24 to 35, among whom testing and treatment rates are low, endangering their own health and that of the people they have sex with.

On stage, Prince Harry described how proud he was to join John, "who has always put people at the center of his work."

In return, John told CNN how Prince Harry had inherited his mother's ability to "charm the pants of anyone" and the value that brings to make people care about HIV and the people affected by the infection.

He also spoke fondly of Harry's mother, Princess Diana, who he believes would be delighted at the progress in the field, adding that "we'd have probably come a lot further as well" if she were alive today.

During her time advocating for people with HIV/AIDS, Diana broke down barriers, including by visiting and shaking hands with patients.

John and his husband, David Furnish, said there are still many barriers to be taken down, namely around stigma and support for vulnerable groups such as injection drug users, sex workers and LGBT groups across Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Rising HIV rates

On Tuesday, John announced the strategy and grantees of another recently announced fund to support key populations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, one of only two regions globally where the HIV epidemic continues to grow rapidly. In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, more than 1.5 million people are living with HIV, and new infections have risen by over 50% since 2010.

The epidemic there is fueled by a lack of government support, poor programs to aid people in diagnosis and beginning treatment, and high costs of antiretroviral treatment and treatment-related services, particularly for LGBT people, according to the foundation.

John hopes that by showing what works to bring new infections down and provide support to those in need, governments will come on board to take on the problem.

"We've gone in and worked in slightly more controversial ways, working strongly with marginalized communities that people don't want to embrace. We get the results and we make a compelling case for it to be expanded," Furnish said.

"In most places, when a government sees it works, they come on board. I don't think there's been a country that we've worked in that it hasn't worked," he said, highlighting Ukraine, South Africa and England.

"We do the work, they come on board, and then we work together," he said. "That's the best way to do it."

Fighting anti-gay laws

The foundation is showcasing results in sub-Saharan Africa, where an LGBT fund helps communities cope with being penalties and discrimination for being homosexual in their own countries. The $10 million fund has been in progress for two years and has reached almost 60,000 people across the region. That includes helping church clergy across denominations in Kenya with housing support, treatment and counseling for clergy who had been suspended and rejected after speaking out for LGBT members of their communities or identifying as LGBT themselves.

Another project in Ghana provided secure accommodations and legal help to LGBT people facing threats of sacrifice for bringing taboo to their community.

"Anybody we see in distress who is treated unfairly," Furnish said, "we have to speak out and support them."

More than 70 countries criminalize same-sex relationships, so people are less likely to access HIV diagnosis and treatment facilities. They're 19 times more likely to be living with HIV, according to the foundation.

John has seen how attitudes can change.

"I remember going to South Africa in Cape Town and setting up a helpline at [the University of Cape Town] for students who couldn't talk about being gay or having AIDS or HIV because they would be thrown out of university," he said. "Now, you don't get that anymore."

Impact of friends and family

After more than 20 years each working in the field, what continues to drive John and Furnish in the fight against AIDS? Both referred to friends they lost early on in the epidemic. Progress made to end HIV/AIDS would mean that "they didn't die for nothing," John said.

"We were profoundly affected by the people we lost," Furnish added, explaining that although progress has been made in some parts of the West, such as the UK, allowing him and John to marry and adopt children, he looks "at the other side of the coin, where people are so marginalized by their sexuality and they don't have the privileges and benefits and joys that we have."

"We have to attack that head-on," he said.

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