By Breda Gahan, Global HIV & AIDS Program Advisor
Recently the U.S. government, through the Health and Human Services Department, announced $68 million in new grants to support comprehensive HIV and AIDS care for women, infants and youth. The investment came on the heels of the 19th International AIDS Conference which drew thousands of people from across the globe into Washington, DC under the theme, “Turning the Tide Together.”
With 46 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS in the world’s poorest countries without access to life-saving antiretroviral treatment, it begs the question: have we really begun to turn the tide?
While the new investment from the U.S. government in HIV and AIDS will undoubtedly make treatment available to more people who need it, we will never reverse the crippling effects of this 100 percent preventable — and increasingly treatable — disease if the international community does not come together and make it a priority.
This responsibility does not only lie with governments — everyday people need to commit to moving the momentum on HIV and AIDS response. This new funding is proof of the difference one person can make in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Administered through the federal Ryan White HIV and AIDS Program, the new funding continues the legacy of Ryan White, one of the earliest and bravest warriors against HIV and AIDS.
Diagnosed with AIDS at age 13, Ryan was expelled from his Indiana school because he had the virus, which he contracted from a blood transfusion. He and his mother did not back down. They fought tirelessly for his right to go to school and drew international attention on HIV and AIDS and the unfounded discrimination that often comes with it.
Ryan sadly died in 1990 due to complications from AIDS, just short of his high school graduation. Soon after his death, Congress passed the AIDS bill that bears his name —funding a program that now provides HIV-related services to more than half a million patients each year. The new funding will expand the program’s reach into 114 hospitals, health departments and community organizations that make care more available for people living with HIV — especially women and young children — with limited or no access to treatment.
We need more warriors like Ryan White. Thirty-one years have passed since the first case of AIDS was diagnosed in the United States. In the past three decades, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV and more than 30 million people have died because of AIDS-related illnesses. More than 600 million people have been affected by the HIV and AIDS pandemic globally — double the population of the United States.
I will not forget the despair I felt at that time as I and my fellow nursing and medical colleagues did all we could in terms of palliative care for people living with AIDS, yet despite our best efforts, everyone died. Death came far too early for far too many young people. Tears were shed by family members and caregivers alike. Everyone was shaken by AIDS.
I left hospital work in 1988 and joined Concern Worldwide. As a field worker, I saw the direct impact of the HIV epidemic first-hand, particularly in Cambodia, Tanzania and in Mozambique.
While we have had the past 30 years filled with heartbreak, we have also seen incredible medical advances that have saved and improved the quality of lives for millions of people. Thanks to highly active antiretroviral therapy (ART), HIV is no longer a death sentence. In 2011, more than eight million people living with HIV in low and middle-income countries were receiving ART, according to UNAIDS, up from 6.6 million people in 2010 and just 400,000 in 2003.
Despite these gains, 46 percent of people in the world’s poorest countries are not getting ART and it is costing us lives each and every day. Just last year, we lost 1.7 million people to AIDS. Another 2.5 million people were infected with HIV last year, adding to the more than 34 million people across the globe living with HIV.
If we are to make an “AIDS-free generation” a reality, we must “marry the biological with the behavioral,” as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) rightly said. Preventing the transmission of HIV from mother to child will be an essential part of the fight and now with pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in our toolkit, this is more possible now than ever.
We are also placing a greater focus on nutrition when it comes to caring for people living with HIV. PEPFAR (US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) is now following an approach that integrates nutrition into the standard care package for people living with HIV while also providing other essential services like counseling and psychosocial care.
And while we must continue to strive for new solutions in the fight against AIDS, and ultimately a cure, we cannot abandon what we know that works, like easy access to HIV testing services; HIV and AIDS and reproductive health education for young people; safety precautions in health care settings; and behavior change communication that focuses on stigma and discrimination.
The fight against HIV and AIDS is at a critical crossroads — we have never before had the medical and scientific knowledge that we do now and the infrastructure to get these developments out where they are most needed.
Concern Worldwide is working every day to free communities from HIV and AIDS in the world’s poorest countries. Because of investments like the U.S. has just made, we were able to reach nearly 1.2 million people last year with life-saving HIV and AIDS services, but we will need sustained support to be able to reach the people who still do not have access to ARV, or the knowledge and tools to protect themselves from contracting HIV in the first place.