Interview: Winnie Sseruma on the future of the AIDS fight

Our global health policy manager Erin Hohlfelder had a chance to speak with Winnie Sseruma, an AIDS activist who has been living with HIV more almost 25 years, at the 2012 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Washington, D.C. Currently, Winnie is the advocacy and networks officer for the community health and HIV team at Christian Aid. In this interview, Erin and Winnie discuss the meaning of the “beginning of the end of AIDS,” the UK government’s work on AIDS and her thoughts on the IAC.

Erin Hohlfelder: As an HIV positive person, what does this conference mean to you? Does it have any special meaning now that it is back in the United States?

Winnie Sseruma: Actually this conference has a lot of meaning for me, being here in Washington D.C., because I was diagnosed in this metropolitan area almost 25 years ago. So coming here is almost like coming full circle. I have a few demons to face, but it’s been really, really quite exciting to be here to learn what has changed since I was diagnosed. But I’m also a little bit disappointed to see that there are things that haven’t changed. The prevalence among black women in this metropolitan area is probably the highest in the country.

At this conference, we’re hearing a lot about the “beginning of the end of AIDS.” I’m curious about what that phrase means to you when you hear it. What’s your reaction? Do you think it’s feasible?

I think when I hear it, I’m a bit skeptical about it because for me it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. I’ve been to so many of these conferences and maybe the discussions have gotten more immediate or they’ve gotten louder, but we’ve been hearing these sorts of discussions from the last two conferences. With the science, we know, as everyone has been saying, that the tools are there, but we are not using them as effectively as we should.

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I think it is about how people actually interpret the “beginning of the end of AIDS” because there will still be people living with HIV when we stop babies getting infected. We still have to deal with all of the different social aspects of things. We know that with HIV it’s not just about new infection, it’s not just about treatment. It’s a whole lot more than that. So it is about people’s interpretation.

It would be great to have an end to this pandemic because it has taken a lot out of us. There are a lot of resources that we could have otherwise put into something else, BUT we have to really make sure that people really don’t get infected. That people are living well with HIV. So it is an important subject.

As a current London resident, what is your take on where we are with the UK government? Are they doing enough on AIDS?

I feel like the UK government is on track and doing a lot of things that it has said its going to do. But as UK activists and UK organizations that are working on HIV, we have to keep having the conversations with the UK government on what we can do differently, on what more we can do because there is always more to do.

Last but not least, as a global speaker and activist with a TED talk and a blog series on your resume, what is your message to our ONE members around the world about using their voice in advocacy?

I’m not sure I’m famous, but I’ve done a lot of talking and I think a voice is a powerful thing. It’s one of the tools that we have in our toolbox to be able to work on HIV so we have to be able to use our voices. Use your voices properly. Don’t just go shouting out in the road. Be strategic with what you are saying. Be strategic with you are you saying it to. And: Don’t. Stop. Talking.

Photo credit: The Independent