December 1 is World AIDS day and there is still no known cure. Now, are you ready for some good news?

27 11 2009

AIDS. It’s been over a quarter century since the world’s most devastating virus was first discovered. Although science and epidemiologists know a lot more about it now than they did in the early 1980s, there is still no vaccine on the horizon.

But lest discouragement set in that no progress is being made… that there’s no end to the bad news where the AIDS epidemic is concerned… that it’s all doom and gloom on the battlefront… there is a ray of hope.

A report out this week from the World Health Organization and UNAids, the UN body charged with monitoring and combating the disease, is surprisingly encouraging.

Before we get to the good news, it seems fitting to first look at the numbers of people who have died from HIV/AIDS, who will die from it and are struggling to live in spite of it right now.

Six thousand people die every day because of AIDS.

Today, 7,400 people around the world contracted HIV. That’s right: seven thousand four hundred. And seven thousand more will contract it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next.

Allow me one more unpleasant set of numbers, this one even nastier: around 33.4 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV, an increase from 33 million in 2007.

Hidden in the awfulness of those numbers, however, is the trickle of good news.

The encouraging news is that the higher number of HIV carriers in the world actually means less people are dying of it now than in previous years. People with HIV are living longer. Something is working.

In sub-Saharan Africa – the epicenter of the battle against AIDS – an estimated 1.4 million people died of HIV/AIDS in 2008. This actually represents an 18 per cent decline in annual deaths due to HIV since 2004.

These numbers are coming from the UNAids/WHO 2009 AIDS epidemic update, released last Tuesday. The report also states that the incidence of new HIV infections has dropped over the past eight years by 17 per cent.

The drop is most encouragingly visible in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though the region still accounts for 67 per cent of all new infections worldwide, the number of new infections has actually fallen from 2.3 million in 2001 to 1.9 million in 2008. Incidentally, this counters North America’s trend, where the 52,000 new cases of HIV that emerged in 2001 climbed to 55,000 in 2008.

The numbers tell us that access to care and vital drugs is improving. Access to antiretroviral therapy in sub-Saharan Africa rose from two per cent in 2003 to 44 per cent in 2008, which means nearly three million people needing it are receiving those services.

Currently, Botswana is emerging as Africa’s leader in access to treatment. Botswana was the first African country to make treatment available to HIV carriers in need, and the national investment is working. With current antiretroviral therapy coverage exceeding eighty per cent – 80! – across the country, the number of people estimated to die annually of AIDS in Botswana has been halved, from 15,500 in 2003 to 7,400 in 2007.

But that is just one shining example and isn’t representative of the whole picture. Nothing short of universal access will satisfy activists and generic drug lobbyists and leaders in the fight to get treatment and care for HIV sufferers.

The fact is, while nearly four million people are currently receiving treatment, 9.7 million are still in need. Still more sobering is the fact that for every two people put on treatment, five more become infected.

In 2006 at the UN General Assembly, 111 governments around the world set targets to achieving universal access to care and treatment by 2010. UNAids stresses that universal access will only be made possible with considerable investment, mainly from rich, developed nations.

An estimated $13.7 billion USD was invested in the AIDS response in 2008, about half of what’s estimated to be required for the global AIDS response in low- and middle-income countries.

Canada ranks relatively low on the list of donor nations to UNAids. Coming in at 26th with a total contribution of just $83,415, Canada doesn’t compare too well with first-ranked Netherlands, which donated a whopping $48.8 million out of a total $256 million raised in 2008.

Although the latest AIDS update presents a more encouraging picture than we’ve seen in almost 25 years, there is yet much, much work to be done.

Half of all children born with AIDS will die before their second birthday, and that’s nothing to celebrate.

By 2010, more than twenty million children will be orphaned due to AIDS, and by 2020, AIDS could kill up to 12 percent of Africa’s workforce – as many as 58 million people.

Thirty three million still infected with HIV is nothing to throw a party about.

We have our ray of hope. Let’s use it to spur our governments and our communities to greater acts of mercy and activism, more innovation and investment, and strive to improve access to care, right now, for those living with – and dying from – HIV/AIDS.

 

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