It was 30 years ago this month that Britain first diagnosed its first HIV patient, the British paper The Telegraph writes, and 30 years ago this year that an American medical journal published the first article about a strange disease that seemed to be targeting men in Los Angeles.
Much progress has been made since world leaders decided to do something about AIDS, since public campaigns changed the public mindset about AIDS as a “gay plague” and took it seriously as a shared health problem that needed to be solved, and quickly.
The breakthrough came from the very public health institutions, such as the British and American National Institutes of Health that are now facing heavy budget cuts. Later, it was state-funded initiatives like President George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Program For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and philanthropic contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation that helped make the nascent HIV treatments available and affordable to millions of people living in poorer countries.
The results have been impressive: a global drop of HIV infection rates, and a form of treatment that allows 33 million people to live normal lives with HIV. As a reporter based in South Africa, I met and wrote about young children who were given a second chance at life through drugs provided by PEPFAR. A good friend of mine, who was skeletal when he finally allowed himself to be taken to a doctor, had essentially given up on life when he was diagnosed with HIV. Today, after anti retro-viral treatments, he’s so healthy he has to watch his weight.
Yet at a time when many of the richer countries of Europe and the Americas are cutting back their budgets, AIDS experts say that positive momentum can be easily lost. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria – the main coordinating body for funding AIDS treatments in 150 countries –has this year suspended new funding to help poorer countries because of lack of donor funding. Many of those poorer countries – especially in Africa, where the greatest numbers of HIV patients lives – had just begun to reduce their HIV infection rates through public awareness campaigns, and had hoped to increase the number of health-care workers and technicians.
So this year, on World AIDS Day, there is some food for thought: What would the world have been like without a vigorous, bipartisan, publicly funded initiative to find a solution to the AIDS crisis? What will the world be like if such publicly funded programs are stopped?
If you’re looking for a well-reported news story on all of this, give yourself some time. AIDS has been around so long now that stories about it tend to have drifted to the living section or the opinion pages.
Probably the best piece you'll read in the American press comes from The Atlantic magazine, and it's an interview with an American doctor, Edward Atwater, who collected AIDS awareness posters from around the world. As someone who remembers when it was illegal to discuss contraception, Dr. Atwater's memories are a kind of time capsule that reminds us how far the United States and indeed the world have come since 1981.
The British press seem to have done a better job. Here’s an interesting interactive map of AIDS prevalence in the Guardian, relying on a data spreadsheet from UNAIDS, the UN agency dealing with AIDS. The map shows where AIDS is more prevalent among adults ages 15 to 49, according to data.
In the London newspaper the Independent, Jeffrey Sachs makes a vociferous case for the need to continue AIDS funding, and takes the Obama administration to task for being “mostly disengaged” on development issues. And he warns that the fight against AIDS is “at risk of collapse.”
To understand the enormity of the US abnegation of responsibility, it is important to understand the scale of the US economy. The US economy is big – roughly $15trn [trillion] per year – so that $1.3bn per year is small. With average incomes around $50,000 per American, the Global Fund pledge amounts to $4.20 per American. Another metric is also helpful. The US military burns through $1.9bn per day, $700bn per year. The Global Fund pledge, now in tatters, amounts to around 16 hours of the annual Pentagon spending.
Other than that, there's not much good reading on AIDS on World AIDS Day. I’ll let Michael Sidibe, the executive director for UNAIDS, have the last word. Here, he responds in a video to questions sent to him by Africans over Facebook.