Last week, the world commemorated the 23rd annual World AIDS Day -- a day in which we remembered the 30 million lives that have been tragically lost, showed solidarity with 34 million people around the world living with HIV, and, most importantly, rededicated ourselves to the cause of ending the epidemic.
I had the privilege to attend a forum sponsored by ONE and (RED) at George Washington University entitled “The Beginning of the End of AIDS” that was simulcast live by YouTube. Among the participants were President Barack Obama, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Kay Warren, and Bono.
The event highlighted the great successes of strong U.S. leadership through programs like PEPFAR and the Global Fund, but noted the need for the “golden triangle” of government, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to continue to work together to accelerate progress. President Obama announced several new commitments in the fight to end HIV and AIDS -- including the goal of supplying life-saving anti-retroviral treatments (ARVs) to 1.5 million pregnant women over the next two years, and support for the bold but achievable goal of putting 6 million people in need of treatment on ARVs by the year 2013.
A revolution of hope and healing has already taken place across the world that far too few Americans truly understand or fully appreciate. American generosity has enabled millions of people living with HIV to experience a “Lazarus” effect, often going from the brink of death back to a healthy life. It seems almost surreal and impossible to think that in 2002, only 100,000 people around the world had access to life-prolonging medicines, compared to the 6.6 million who are now on treatment, in large measure due to the success of initiatives like PEPFAR and the Global Fund. President Kikwete of Tanzania spoke to the profound difference these smart and life-saving investments are making. In Tanzania alone, the percentage of adults infected has gone down dramatically -- from 18 percent in the 1990s to 5.7 percent today.
I distinctly remember being tested for HIV for the first time 10 years ago in a community health clinic in Kenya. I was with an HIV-positive Kenyan woman who could afford ARV therapy only because she worked for an international NGO that was able to secure her treatment from abroad. At that time, AIDS truly represented a death sentence in Kenya.
I can vividly recall the 10 minutes of waiting in a cramped reception area as I awaited the results of the rapid test. Ten minutes can easily feel like an eternity as you imagine what a positive result could mean for your life. In that moment, I was struck by the staggering disparity between what a positive result would have meant for me, compared to the rest of the crowd of women, men, and even young people who were also awaiting their results. As devastating as a positive result might have been, I would have had access to life-prolonging medicine, excellent healthcare, and a supportive family, compared to the pervasive stigma, shame, and stark lack of access to care or treatment that my Kenyan brothers and sisters would face. Ten years later, the world has made incredible strides in closing this chasm.
In the early 2000s, I joined a chorus of champions advocating for a comprehensive approach of both prevention and treatment, in part because we believed that access to treatment was both a moral imperative and was indispensable to prevention efforts. Without any access to treatment, people would be devoid of hope and lack an incredible incentive for being tested. Yet a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine provides an even more compelling reason to scale up access to treatment. The seminal study found a 96-percent decrease in transmission to a heterosexual partner when AIDS treatment was initiated early. Thus, treating the virus early has become an almost-foolproof form of prevention that could literally create the long-awaited tipping point.
With these and other scientific advancements, the beginning of the end of AIDS is finally in sight. The message at the recent forum was resoundingly clear: The future of AIDS is now in our hands -- and an AIDS-free generation is now within our grasp. What was once thought of as being impossible can now become inevitable. Some 30 million funerals later, the power of human and political will must be stronger than the will of what has been a resilient virus.
I pray and believe that through our collective voices and actions, my son, who turns 1 year old on December 20, could be part of a generation who comes to know the AIDS pandemic as a crisis of the past.
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