The first World AIDS Day was observed in 1988, more than 25 years ago. The global HIV community has made incredible progress since those early days of the epidemic. Today, roughly 10 million people – out of 35 million people living with HIV in developing countries – are receiving life-saving drugs. This is a testament to the tireless work of government leaders and the HIV community over the past decade. Every single life saved by HIV treatment is invaluable, and pays dividends far beyond the price of the drugs that have restored so many people to health. And that is why I am so excited by the new recommendations from the World Health Organization, which will make millions more people living with HIV in developing countries eligible to access treatment for HIV/AIDS.
This is an incredible moment in the history of AIDS. So on this World AIDS Day, here are five important things you should know:
We can afford to treat many more people living with HIV. Putting people on HIV treatment used to be incredibly expensive; just a decade ago, AIDS drugs alone could cost as much as $10,000 every year. But thanks to dramatic reductions in drug prices, patients can receive HIV treatment in some countries, like South Africa, for as little as $100 every year.
It’s imperative that we scale-up with all deliberate speed. The new WHO recommendations will make upwards of 15 million new patients eligible for treatment. If we keep adding patients at current rates, it’ll take until at least 2020 to get treatment to everyone who needs it – that’s far too long, and in the meantime many people will die. We need to increase the pace of scale-up, and we need to do it now – especially for infants and children living with HIV.
AIDS is still killing far too many people in developing countries. Even though 10 million people currently are on treatment, more than 1.6 million people still die every year from illnesses related to AIDS – including pneumonia, tuberculosis and meningitis, all of which are treatable. We are doing a much better job of combating these illnesses – but there still isn’t good enough information about where people are dying, whether they know they have HIV, and what exactly they are dying from.
We do, however, know how we can save more lives. A number of Ministries of Health and nonprofit organizations are showing us how we can provide new and innovative treatment services to patients around the world. Médecins Sans Frontières’s (MSF) community treatment groups are a great example – instead of making patients travel long distances to clinics to collect their medications every month, one patient will collect medications for the whole group – helping people in rural areas have easier access to treatment. Simple changes like this can mean the difference between life and death for thousands of people living with HIV.
Above all, developing country governments will lead the way forward. At CHAI, we are so proud to be working in partnership with the HIV programs of dozens of governments across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. These governments, and the tireless people that work for them, are among the true heroes of the AIDS epidemic. The story of HIV is their story – one that has played out over countless, sleepless nights in Ministry conference rooms and community health facilities alike. These individuals know the most efficient and effective ways to scale-up treatment for their citizens; so for scale-up to be successful, we need to look to their wisdom and leadership.
I’ve lost count of the number of HIV facilities I’ve visited since I joined CHAI in 2011. I’ve visited a hospital treating thousands of AIDS patients in the center of Ethiopia’s busiest market, and a small health center treating less than a hundred people five hours down a dirt road in rural Malawi. I have been to AIDS clinics, testing centers, TB hospitals and everything in between. I have seen care delivered to HIV patients in a hundred different ways, and I have met people that are alive today and will still be alive on World AIDS Day next year because they have continue to have access to the care that will keep them healthy. And I have seen over and over again that treatment saves lives, every single day.
So the most important thing you should know this World AIDS Day is that the promise of an end to suffering from HIV/AIDS is not only possible – it is within our reach.