AIDS has not gone away, even if we hear less about it than we used to. It is preposterous that still, today, 34 million people carry the AIDS virus, yet only 10 million of them receive the affordable drugs that prolong life and virtually prevent transmission to others. Every day 1,000 children are born infected with HIV, an entirely preventable catastrophe, if only the birth mothers had been on those same affordable drugs. And most tragically, close to 1.7 million people will die of AIDS this year, even though we have the tools to prevent most of those deaths. Imagine if you were one of the millions infected with HIV but unable to get treatment.
Every movement has its moments. We are now at one of those moments in the fight against AIDS … but only if we choose to act.
Today, we are truly at a tipping point. We have the knowledge and tools to send the HIV epidemic into irreversible decline. By getting everyone living with HIV onto antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), as soon as we possibly can. With the declining cost of medicine to treat each patient, there appears to be enough funding in the system to treat everyone who has HIV. I believe that we can do it, and I hope that other leaders in the fight will join me in this conviction.
The evidence is overwhelming that ARVs work, and work powerfully. They prolong and save lives. They make people living with HIV healthier by dramatically reducing the amount of virus in the body. Best of all, when the amount of virus is lowered, the likelihood of HIV transmission plummets, which means that people with HIV who are on ARVs are far less likely to transmit the virus to others.
These drugs not only extend life and protect the sexual partners of HIV-positive people, they also prevent transmission of HIV from a pregnant woman to her child. This is an amazing medical achievement which has allowed the 22 countries with the highest HIV burden to report a 38-percent decline in mother-to-child transmission of HIV since 2009. In the U.S., fewer than 200 babies are born HIV-positive annually.
Last month the World Health Organization (WHO) announced new guidelines that, in a nutshell, recommend a major stepping up of HIV treatment with proven drugs. In doing so, WHO is laying the path for a quantum leap ahead in bringing the epidemic under control. The WHO recommendation calls for earlier initiation of treatment for people with HIV. By getting more people on treatment earlier, we will save lives, make people healthier and reduce virus transmission to others.
WHO’s new recommendations translate into a call for covering 26 million on ARVs, a dramatic increase in the number of people considered “eligible” for antiretroviral therapy, and well above the 10 million on treatment today. This means finding and treating adults, adolescents and children earlier in the disease cycle, as well as immediately treating all pregnant and breastfeeding women and certain populations with other conditions or situations. There is no doubt whatsoever that we will save millions of additional lives if we adopt the WHO treatment recommendations, and millions more if we are able to scale up treatment faster.
As Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) said, “We now have a new challenge – ensuring that all 26 million people eligible for treatment have access – not one person less. Any new HIV infection or AIDS-related death due to lack of access to antiretroviral therapy is unacceptable.” UNAIDS issued its own report last week called “Treatment 2015, which recognizes that treatment is, indeed, the most important way to reduce the suffering of people with AIDS and to bring to a halt the spread of AIDS.
Currently just under 10 million people receive ARVs. This is, indeed, incredible progress over the last ten years: in 2002 only about 300,000 persons in low-income and middle-income countries were able to access life-saving treatment. Today’s challenge is even bigger, but also totally achievable. We must now move from 10 million to 26 million people covered by ARVs. And to do so we must make meeting this challenge a global priority. We must ensure that everyone who is at risk gets tested, and we must act proactively to ensure that those who are eligible for treatment are provided with an opportunity to begin ART as soon as possible. There is money to get the job done, but unlocking and focusing funds requires an acknowledgement that ART is a critical path in the HIV response, complementing already proven HIV prevention strategies.
Magic Johnson is one of the great heroes in the history of AIDS. He provided a brave and very public face for the epidemic long before others were willing to do so. Today he is healthy and he provides the world with leadership and inspiration about HIV/AIDS. I suggest that we use Magic’s example as our own guide, and that we commit to getting every HIV-positive person we can onto ARVs.
Let’s save the 390,000 children who will die this year due to AIDS. Let’s help avoid needless suffering of millions and millions by making provision of ARVs our number one focus going forward. Let’s halt the spread of AIDS by acknowledging that the proven best way to do so is to give people this powerful medicine. Let’s bring this global scourge to its knees. We have the resources. We must not accept anything less!
Written by Ray Chambers : United Nations Special Envoy for Financing the Health MDGs and for Malaria