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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Kenneth Cole & Launch of “END AIDS Coalition” at IAS 2017

Photo Credit: UNAIDS

The International AIDS Society meeting that commenced this past Saturday here in Paris has been full of data, research and information on HIV treatment, other PrEP and prevention options as well as potential cures. But today, fashion designer and HIV/AIDS activist Kenneth Cole launched the END AIDS Coalition with various global partners including UNAIDS, PEPFAR, amfAR and EGPAF, among many others, to help unify the global efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

Partner organizations of the END AIDS Coalition hope to amplify their work, overcome barriers and encourage everyone to collectively be a part of the solution to HIV/AIDS. The new coalition hopes to work alongside the UNAIDS 90-90-90 mission, but to increase its effectiveness by essentially ending AIDS by 2030.

HIV stigma was a large part of today’s discussion at the launch of the coalition and in HIV Equal’s private interview with Kenneth Cole. Bringing visibility to younger activists is a focus of the EAC’s work, as was a sense of urgency to finding an HIV cure. If one is not discovered in the next three to five years, it was argued, the world would miss the window of opportunity to end this epidemic and prepare for a new one – which could see the rates of HIV infection more than double worldwide.

“I think, to a large degree, AIDS is on some people’s minds but not on their lips. It’s not spoken about, it’s not dealt with and it’s not out in the open still. And the stigma continues to drive a lot of this undercover, which ultimately perpetuates circumstances and probably it exaggerates it in the at-risk communities,” said Cole in our private interview. “So to the degree you can bring the discussion out in the open, you can talk about it, which is something I’ve tried to do for a lot of years. When done in ways that are engaging and non-offensive – it works even more so.”

As known by many in the field of HIV, stigma in its many forms plays a role in access to testing, treatment and prevention programs, which also creates an environment that keeps people away from the healthcare they need. Cole has worked to break down barriers through his decades of advocacy, and shared his thoughts on how certain populations face stigma and discrimination, but how acceptance has helped to expand the role of social services in stemming the spread of stigma and HIV in at-risk communities and the larger populations.

“The gay community was very much affiliated with AIDS for a long time, but in Africa and in other areas, it isn’t as much so. I think, again, too, a lot of progress has been made in that world. And the more comfortable we are talking about who we are and what we believe, the easier everything gets. Stigma, as I’ve often said, and believe, has probably killed more people than the virus itself.”

Kenneth Cole has been an activist from the early days of the HIV epidemic. His magazine and billboard ads have been seen by millions of people globally, and have positively impacted the work of HIV organizations and the lives of those living with HIV. He has helped to reshape the discussion of HIV as a chronic illness and one that can affect anyone. He has worked with world-renowned figures to bring his advocacy to the forefront of the public view, and has succeeded in garnering high-level support.

“I’m inclined to say things that others wouldn’t – the way others would be reluctant – and in this space I’m a convener more than anything. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a public health person. But I’m able to get peoples’ attention, I’m able to shine a light on the critical points and create a call to action. And I think that has helped me enable this END AIDS Coalition.”

He added, “I’ve met extraordinary people, and there are a lot of experiences mixed into that. I’ve had the privilege of meeting President Mandela in South Africa when we did our ‘We All Have AIDS’ campaign, and I met with him several times after. He inspired me profoundly.”

Cole’s advocacy work will continue for some time. With a stated goal of ending AIDS by 2030, there is a huge task ahead for the END AIDS Coalition. It is working to advance the UNAIDS 2016 Political Declaration on many levels. Looking at the global AIDS response holistically, the EAC is amplifying and aggregating plans, targets and data from partners across prevention, treatment, cure and vaccine sectors, according to the launch session’s press release.

“[EAC] brings the work of countries and governments with the next generation of really dedicated advocates, whether it’s Elizabeth Taylor’s grandchildren or Prince Harry or Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren or Jake Glaser – it says we need to have that voice of the next generation to reach the individuals now that are particularly at risk,” added Ambassador Deborah Birx, United States Global AIDS Coordinator.

Executive Director of the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Michel Sidibé, encouraged the work of the coalition, and emphasized his endorsement of Cole’s lead role in this new initiative. “No one else can lead us through a coordinated effort for innovation than Kenneth. He has 25 years with amfAR, investing his time and energy and making sure that this organization will continue to lead for finding a cure. This new coalition will help us.”

The END AIDS Coalition already has plans for 2018 to create a cross-sector, consumer-facing campaign to help bring greater visibility to their stated goals, to amplify the united global messaging and to bring everyone together as part of the solution.