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Outgoing UN Head Pledges to Continue Working for AIDS-Free World

UNITED NATIONS -- Ban Ki-moon marked his last World AIDS Day as Secretary-General of the United Nations on Wednesday by pledging to continue working to achieve an AIDS-free world and calling upon nations to do their part to fast track UNAIDS' ambitious goal of getting 30 million HIV-positive people on treatment.

Image: World Leaders Gather In New York For Annual United Nations General Assembly
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Sept. 20, 2016 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

"This requires that we reach the people in the most vulnerable communities," Ban said at UN headquarters in New York. "The young women in Sub-Saharan Africa, people who inject drugs, gay men and other men who have sex with men and the poor who need services and care."

The Secretary-General, who is an ardent supporter of the UN's Free & Equal campaign, also proclaimed in his remarks that he was happy to be an LGBTI activist and reaffirmed his belief that all people have equal human rights and dignity.

"We are motivated to fight AIDS, because we know that every child deserves care, every person deserves treatment and all vulnerable groups deserve protection from stigma and abuse," Ban said.

In the 35th year of the global AIDS pandemic, the Secretary-General also alluded to Larry Kramer's iconic protest group, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which taught generations of HIV/AIDS activists the world over how to fight for their rights -- and their lives.

Flashback: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP 1:05

"We know that hatred and bigotry spread disease and as the founders of this movement taught 'silence equals death,'" Ban said. "Tolerance and awareness help stop AIDS. Speaking out protects life."

Eric Sawyer, one of the ACT UP's co-founding members, was a speaker at the event. In an interview with NBC OUT, he recalled a protest in the early 2000s when he and a group of ACT UP members were ejected from UN grounds for protesting access to treatment in the developing world.

"It was humbling to hear the Secretary-General pay tribute to the role of ACT UP in teaching people to fight for their rights," he said. "The HIV/AIDs legacy of Ban Ki-moon will definitely include his unwavering commitment to dignity, equality and human rights for all people, including promoting access to HIV medications for the most vulnerable groups at risk for HIV. This, and his support of the UN Free & Equal campaign to protect the rights of LGBTI people is revolutionary with in the UN system."

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When Ban first became secretary-general in 2007, an estimated 2.9 million people around the world had access to life-saving antiviral retro-therapies. As he departs from the UN, a new report coinciding with World AIDS Day 2016 found that 18.2 million now have access to care, as of June. Moreover, the number of people who die annually from AIDS-related illnesses has been cut in half to 1.1 million in 2015, according to UNAIDS.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe praised Ban on Wednesday for his "courageous" support in guiding the organization to dream of an AIDS-free world with zero discrimination, zero new HIV infections and zero AIDS-related deaths.

"Kennedy had a dream to go to the moon in '62, and it happened. Why do we not have a dream to end this epidemic?" Sidibe said. "And you joined us, you pushed for that."

And, on the day that the world pauses to remember the more than 35 million people whose lives have been claimed by HIV/AIDS, the Secretary-General promised never to stop pushing for an end to the worst plague in modern history.

"I will continue to stand with all of you until we achieve an AIDS-free world," Ban said.

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