Nelson Mandela and the Fight Against AIDS

It was the second day of the International conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Paris, in July 2003. There wasn't a spare single seat that night in the main hall of the Palais des Congrès.

I take Nelson Mandela to the front of the stage. He was wearing one of these African shirts which he loved so much, bright colors on yellow. He climbs one step onto the podium, looks at the audience, and stays there, silent and smiling. That large smile that we have seen so often, open, generous, welcoming and enlightening that seemed to tell us: "I am so pleased to be with you; your fight is the right cause to fight."

Several long minutes followed: Nelson Mandela was watching the audience from left to right, from right to left, silent and smiling. This was, we all understood it, the first part of his message -- a message of support and trust, stronger than any words could articulate. The audience of thousands stood up and looked in turn into this smiling face. Each of us rapidly rewinding in our minds a series of images of his life: Robben Island, the dark years of apartheid, the peace and reconciliation commission, his presidency, the Nobel peace prize.

For many of us who had attended the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa three years earlier, we remembered his call to fight AIDS in a country that was in political denial of the disease, and the calls of Justice Cameron and of the HIV positive boy Ngosi for access to treatment for all, at a time when nobody was receiving antiretroviral drugs in the developing world where 90 percent of the affected people were living.

All of these images were running through our minds as Nelson Mandela stood before us on stage. I will never forget those moments of standing beside him. We all admired the great statesman, a man whose political vision was strongly and undefeatably based on a confidence in a long term future that went beyond any short term concerns.

Earlier in that day, we had heard from eminent scientists about the ten or twenty reasons why universal access to AIDS treatment would never be possible and would remain a utopia. Mandela's smile was a challenge to that impossible prognosis. On the eve of the conference, French President Chirac had announced the tripling of France's contribution to the newly created Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in Geneva. The WHO had launched the 3x5 initiative aiming at having three million people on treatment by 2005. The following years, despite the many and enormous challenges the world faced in rolling out antiretroviral treatment to those who most needed it, would prove to us all that those confident in the future were indeed right.

Today, ten million people are accessing AIDS treatment which represents over sixty percent of all those in most urgent need of therapy and the number of new infections and AIDS-related mortality have decreased by 25 percent in the last five years. What appeared to be utopian ten years ago is now a reachable target.

Mandela would undoubtedly approve.