“[W]e can end this pandemic. We can beat this disease. We can win this fight. We just have to keep at it, steady, persistent—today, tomorrow, every day until we get to zero.” – President Obama speaking on World AIDS Day
From patient zero to zero patients, the battle against HIV/AIDS has been tough, to say the least. Scientists at the world’s premiere HIV/AIDS research labs still have not yet found the elusive cure for this pandemic thirty years after the first cases of AIDS-related death were brought to the public eye by the CDC. Fast forward to last Thursday, when millions gathered around the world to remember lost loved ones, reflect on the situation at hand, and discuss this year’s theme of “getting to zero.” Zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths by 2015. The idea of achieving such a feat within the next few years is certainly nice to think about, but is it a reasonable goal?
Of course, different parts of the world are likely to focus their efforts on different “zeros.” In Nigeria, first lady Patience Jonathan urged her people not to discriminate against those infected with HIV, saying “No matter how you take anti-retroviral drugs, without love and support, you can still die.” In sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 70% of all people infected with HIV live, there is still a strong stigma surrounding women who have the virus, and many do not seek treatment as a result, even if the treatment is readily available. The demographic that is inadvertently affected is the children, who end up contracting HIV from their mothers. A recent report from the UN indicates that AIDS will kill half of all 15-year-olds in Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa by 2012 if nothing is done. Nearly 14 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, and each day, nearly 1,000 children are born HIV positive. The unfortunate truth is that these child AIDS cases could be prevented. The treatment exists to eliminate the chances that an HIV positive mother will pass the virus to her child and groups like Project (RED) have focused their efforts to continue making HIV/AIDS services widely available in Africa.
Despite these alarming statistics, the news is not all bad. According to a report released by ONE on World AIDS Day, annual new child HIV infections have dropped by nearly 40% in the past decade, and overall annual new infections have dropped by over 15%. The number of people on treatment has increased from 100,000 in 2002 to 6.6 million in 2010, and the average cost of treatment per person through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has dropped by almost 70% in the last 7 years. According to the Hindustan Times, the number of newly infected dropped by 34% in Southeast Asia between 2001 and 2010, and the number of people receiving anti-retroviral treatment has increased ten-fold. In the UK, the Department of Health is considering lifting the ban on physicians who are infected with the virus.
Closer to home, the story is slightly different. MSNBC reports that 28 percent of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV have the infection under control, caused in part by the fact that just one in five US adults who have the virus are aware of it. This needlessly puts people at risk of infection when the treatment is widely available. Michael Hanlon of The Telegraph attributes the lack of control to the fact that the ”post-AIDS generation in the West is increasingly blasé, even defiant, about the need to take the sexual precautions that became widespread a quarter of a century ago,” claiming the availability of drugs is counterproductive. The biggest problem facing the US is still a lack education about the disease. It is imperative that groups like GlobeMed continue to spread awareness about the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS and other global health concerns, especially among youth. Looking at the trends in other parts of the world, the potential for eliminating the disease here in the US is high.
The prevailing message behind World AIDS Day this year was that the HIV/AIDS battle is one that we can win. Clearly, we have come a long way from the days where an AIDS diagnosis equated to a death sentence. Is the goal of having an HIV-free generation in 2015 reasonable? I think the chances of achieving this goal are fairly high, considering the progress that has been made in the past ten years alone. As long as the support for this fight and the availability of treatment continues to grow, the day where AIDS is no longer a problem is well within our grasp.