A Generation Free of AIDS?

Children walk with activists in a torch light rally ahead of World AIDS Day in Kolkata, India, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012. The act
Children walk with activists in a torch light rally ahead of World AIDS Day in Kolkata, India, Friday, Nov. 30, 2012. The activists demanded monthly pension and free ration facilities for sex workers and HIV/AIDS affected people. (AP Photo/Bikas Das)

We may be witnessing the beginning of the end for AIDS. A recent report from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, reveals a more than 50 percent decline in new HIV infections in 25 low- and middle-income countries over the last decade. Thirteen of those countries are located in sub-Saharan Africa, where this global epidemic continues to plague the population.

This remarkable news comes just in time for World AIDS Day, December 1, and as we reach the 1,000-day deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goal regarding HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention. UNAIDS claims that ending the AIDS epidemic is "entirely feasible," due primarily to enhancing people's access to drugs that treat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS.

"The pace of progress is quickening," said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé in a press release. "What used to take a decade is now being achieved in 24 months."

HIV Prevention Rises, While AIDS-Related Deaths Decline

According to the UNAIDS report, there were 700,000 fewer new HIV infections globally in the last decade. HIV-prevention efforts have been most successful among children. In fact, the sharpest reduction in new HIV infections around the world -- approximately two-thirds between 2009 and 2011 -- has been among newborns. New infections among children in general declined by 43 percent from 2003-2011.

"It is becoming evident that achieving zero HIV infections in children is possible," said Sidibé. "I am excited that far fewer babies are being born with HIV. We are moving from despair to hope."

In addition, UNAIDS contends that in sub-Saharan Africa, AIDS-related deaths have plummeted by more than one-third in the last six years. Meanwhile, the number of people who receive antiretroviral treatment has jumped 59 percent in the last two years, and there has been a 63 percent increase worldwide in access to HIV treatment during that period.

The report also maintains that approximately 8 million people were receiving antiretroviral treatment by the end of 2011 -- a number that is up 20 percent since 2003. However, the UN's targeted goal is to treat 15 million people by 2015.

Achieving an AIDS-Free Generation

Sidibé cautioned that although we are making historic progress in combating this global epidemic, much more must be done to achieve an AIDS-free generation by 2015.

There were an estimated 34 million people living with HIV at the end of 2011; approximately half of them were unaware of their HIV status. Despite a 20 percent decline in new infections over the last decade, there were still 2.5 million new infections last year, along with 1.7 million deaths due to AIDS-related causes. Over 70 percent of those new cases came from sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately one in every 20 adults is infected.

In particular, HIV/AIDS continues to have a disproportionate impact on women and children. HIV/AIDS is said to be the chief cause of death for women of reproductive age worldwide. Yet UNAIDS estimates that 60 percent of low- and middle-income countries do not allocate sufficient resources for women and girls in their national HIV responses.

Instead, there is rampant gender inequality, often accompanied by violence or the threat of violence, which prevents women from accessing HIV prevention, treatment, and care services. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the UN Population Fund recently described access to contraception and family planning as a "universal human right."

Beyond the numbers, people living with HIV are often stigmatized, becoming victims of discrimination and gross injustice. To that end, UNAIDS recently appointed Nobel peace prize winner and Member of Parliament Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as a Global Advocate for Zero Discrimination.

"It is a great honor to be chosen as a champion for people who live on the fringes of society and struggle every day to maintain their dignity and basic human rights. I would like to be the voice of the voiceless," said Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. She will work to remove the stigma that often intimidates people and precludes them from seeking HIV treatment.

For more on how you can help in the fight against AIDS, please visit www.unfoundation.org/features/world-aids-day.html.