We Can Win the AIDS War

I think about what the word AIDS meant when I became a Senator in 1985. Back when it was a death sentence, back when many politicians weren't comfortable saying the word.

I think about what the word AIDS meant on a global scale in the 1990's when we first started joining three words together in a sentence: AIDS in Africa. It meant a looming death sentence for a continent, and thank God that people across the ideological divide decided that was unacceptable.

The truth is that in many ways, here at home, we've ended 1985's meaning of "AIDS as we knew it." It's not an unspoken word -- nor is it an automatic death sentence. And since PEPFAR, we're on the road to do the same globally.

But now we have to end the era of AIDS -- period.

I was in the White House yesterday when President Obama pledged up to $5 billion in U.S. money over the next three years to combat AIDS through the Global Fund. In return, he challenged the international community to contribute $10 billion to defeat this scourge. Donor groups began meeting within hours to develop a plan for the next phase in this global fight.

The President's commitment and his follow-through reflect his fundamental belief in the possibility of an AIDS-free generation. Through the hard work of so many worldwide, the goal of defeating AIDS itself is within our grasp.

An amazing group of remarkable AIDS warriors assembled at the White House -- scientists and public servants, researchers and advocates, Republicans and Democrats - all of whom put ideology and partisanship, party, even national identity aside to try to embrace a universal vision. And by reaching across disciplines and across different faiths, and by reaching across the aisle and across the world simultaneously, everybody there helped to tap into what we like to think are the deepest values of our country but happily are shared by so many other countries and so many other people around the world.

I remember back in 1998 when Bill Frist and I joined together as the chairs of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Task Force on HIV/AIDS and very little was known about it. I remember the fear back then, literally, and in politics, it was a tricky thing to talk about publicly. As recently as 10 years ago, AIDS was a death sentence for many, and experts warned that in parts of the world, we had reached a point literally of no return.

But what I remember most -- and what I've been privileged to be part of every step of the way -- is how everybody came together to push back against that pessimism. When the leaders in this room and in entire communities, entire countries which were ravaged by AIDS - when you looked out and saw this challenge, you didn't see someone else's crisis. You saw our shared humanity and our shared responsibility.

Now, with World AIDS Day and the meeting at the White House and the follow-on conference, we are renewing that commitment. And it's appropriate, even as we do so, to think about all those who have been lost in this battle, those who were too late to save them. And we remember a lot of friends -- I can remember many members, supporters of mine and others in political life, in the gay community, who were going to funeral after funeral after funeral. And there was a massive pessimism within the community and a sense that this was overwhelming and that there was no way we could win this.

Well, it is clear that we are now turning a very important corner. But the battle is not won. There are major challenges ahead and they will require major commitments to live up to the memory of all those for whom it was too late and to make sure we are not too late to save another generation.

But there is good news. In Sub-Saharan Africa, new HIV infections are down by nearly 40 percent since 2001. AIDS-related mortality has declined by nearly one-third since its peak in 2005. And globally, new infections among children have been cut in half in a decade. And access to life-saving HIV treatment has increased close to forty-fold.

We have achieved much of this because President Obama was determined to set a higher standard. On World AIDS Day two years ago, the President challenged us to reach six million more people with live-saving treatment, to provide 1.5 million HIV-positive pregnant women with treatment for their own health and to prevent onward transmission to their children, and to reach 4.7 million men with voluntary medical male circumcision services for HIV prevention.

These targets have pushed us to go further, to be more innovative, to forge new partnerships, including with many of you here in this room. And as a result, you all are now reaching more people and more lives are being saved than ever before.

Now to meet the challenge of PEPFAR's second decade we have to transform America's role, and we need no clearer example of the transformation that we need to realize than South Africa, Rwanda, and Namibia, which -- all you have to do is look at the work that they're doing with the Country Health Partnerships. These countries provide a model for how PEPFAR is transitioning from providing direct aid to delivering support for locally run and self-sustaining efforts. This is a vital transformation.

And greater commitments from our partners in the Global Fund should give greater confidence to this initiative. I am extremely encouraged by the increased investments from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Canada, as well as from Germany and France. And all of them are extending their high levels of commitment, and as the President just said to you, don't leave our money on the table. If everybody steps up, we will do even more and meet this challenge.

In every generation, Americans are called on to do exceptional things against seemingly insurmountable odds. We know that working to achieve an AIDS-free generation will continue to pose an incredible test. But with our continued commitment, I am certain that we can all look forward not only to passing that test, but to working with each other and providing a new definition of the character of our nation and the character of our global spirit.