Co-authored by Todd Schafer, President and CEO of the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance.
The Board of UNAIDS, the coordinating body for global HIV policy and programming, gathered in Geneva in December to rally support for a remarkable goal: The end of AIDS as a global health threat by 2030. The optimism witnessed in Switzerland was tempered by the daunting task of reaching and medically treating the 35 million people infected by HIV/AIDS globally. While the tools to achieve this goal are at hand, the only remaining obstacle is the political will to provide education and medical services to those who suffer most from this deadly epidemic. We from The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF) and the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) went to Geneva to testify to the UNAIDS committee about our own commitment to the end of HIV/AIDS and how we chip away at this obstacle every day.
A concrete example is our GAIA/Elizabeth Taylor Mobile Health Clinic program, a flexible, replicable innovation that brings life-sustaining healthcare to hard-to-reach rural areas in Africa. This program -- a brainchild of Ms. Taylor herself -- has contributed to HIV/AIDS-related deaths dropping by 50 percent in Malawi. It works on the front lines by educating, testing, and treating one person at a time, and as a result, reducing and eventually stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS in entire communities. To end AIDS, we need to aggressively allocate resources and implement programs like ours at the front lines NOW if the world is going to meet UNAIDS goal within the next 15 years.
In the 30 years since the outbreak of HIV/AIDS gripped the world with fear and stigmatized its victims, we've come a long way. It took a Hollywood heartthrob (Rock Hudson) to confirm rumors about his own HIV status, an extraordinary teenager (Ryan White) to be denied entry to his middle school, and an international celebrity (Elizabeth Taylor) to start speaking out for people suffering from this disease. While the White House sat silent in those years, these early advocates and others raised the profile of the AIDS epidemic dramatically and triggered a powerful outpouring of compassion and activism. Ms. Taylor, Rock Hudson's co-star and dear friend, was at the forefront of this movement. She co-founded The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and became its international chair. She convinced President Reagan to make his first public speech about HIV/AIDS in 1987 after seven years of persistent urging. A leading proponent of the Ryan White CARE Act, Elizabeth Taylor testified before Congress and helped the legislation finally pass in 1990. She also founded The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation which continues her legacy of activism and empowers organizations providing direct care and services to people living with HIV/AIDS around the world.
Ms. Taylor's commitment to the fight against HIV/AIDS knew no geographic boundaries. Our GAIA/Elizabeth Taylor Mobile Health Clinic program that we presented at the UNAIDS conference had its roots in the wake of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster, when thousands of people affected by this disease were separated by floodwaters from the healthcare they needed to survive. In response, Ms. Taylor reached out to local NGOs to provide a mobile medical clinic so that Katrina's victims would have access to care. Immediately, she realized that mobile healthcare intervention would work outside of an emergency context. She knew that chronic lack of access to healthcare was the biggest barrier in the battle against HIV/AIDS in Africa due to distance, time and cost of transportation.
Ms. Taylor questioned, "If people cannot get to health care, why can't we bring health care to the people?" And so it began... Today, in collaboration with ETAF's on-the-ground partner, GAIA, the program operates seven mobile clinics serving more than 1,000 sick patients every day -- 40 percent of them children under the age of five. The clinics rotate each day in the regions we serve, making life-sustaining healthcare available for 900,000 people. Healthcare is now within an hours walk for people who used to have to walk for up to a day to receive care.
At the UNAIDS December meeting in Geneva, we witnessed the world making a commitment to an AIDS-free future by 2030. While The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance are proud to play a key role in striving toward that remarkable day, the world and its political leaders must take drastic action to meet a goal that is so clearly within our grasp.