By 2030, AIDS could be a thing of the past, a new UNAIDS report has concluded
Since 2000, the number of new HIV cases has dropped by 35 percent -- from 3.1 million to 2 million. The drastic decline is attributed in large part to greater accessibility to antiretroviral drugs, community outreach programs and the effective mobilization of advocates worldwide, according to the report.
“Ending the AIDS epidemic as a public health threat by 2030 is ambitious, but realistic,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. “We also know that it is essential to a fair and equitable future.”
Just 15 years ago, AIDS was described as a “runaway express” whose growth was believed to be impossible to slow down. Many world leaders didn’t even want to include tackling the epidemic as part of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals in fear of failure, the report noted.
Back then, fewer than 700,000 people were receiving antiretroviral medicines and their costs were unsustainable.
A one-year supply of treatment would run about $14,000 in today’s terms due to the fact that the pharmaceutical industry had a “tight grip” on government policies and prices.
“There was very little to offer someone dying from AIDS,” Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said in an interview. “The best you could hope for was that your family wouldn’t throw you out.”
Despite the grim outlook, advocates came together to set four goals to achieve by this year that appeared impossible at the time, but have all been met.
The sixth MDG called for reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, giving special assistance to children orphaned by the epidemic, helping Africa tackle AIDS and urging pharmaceutical companies to make lifesaving drugs more accessible.
The final goal was one of the greatest challenges, and one the most important in history.
Today about 15 million people have access to antiretroviral medicines and a year of HIV treatment costs less than $100.
But it took the work of tireless advocates to make that vision a reality.
When Brazil and Thailand began manufacturing generic antiretroviral medicines, they unveiled that the pills were relatively cheap to make. That, in turn, enabled UNAIDS to start negotiations with companies to cut the prices, according to the report.
Manufacturers then started making generic drugs in India. And in 2001, pharmaceutical company Cipla dropped antiretroviral medicine prices from $800 to $350.
The Treatment Action Campaign went on to sue the government of South Africa to make antiretroviral medicines available, and push for changes to the patent protection in order to bring the prices down.
The increased availability of such drugs, along with community outreach programs to promote testing and treatment, has played an integral role in reducing mother-to-child transmission.
Today, there are 58 percent fewer new infections among children than there were in 2000.
UNAIDS is “confident” that that figure will soon reach zero, an outcome that was recently proven possible by Cuba. The World Health Organization deemed it the first country to eliminate the transmission of HIV and syphilis from mother to child.
Nascent community programs are a key component to helping to reduce transmissions in Africa.
In Malawi, for example, a government program trains ambassadors to go door-to-door urging fathers to get involved in their wives’ care. The goal is to find out their status, attend appointments and get more involved in treatment plans.
Mothers with HIV/AIDS in Africa are also learning how to safely breastfeed their kids without infecting them. Giving babies access to such nutrition is actually critical to warding off HIV, since it helps prevent malnutrition, which can lead to infection, according to UNICEF.
Despite such overwhelming successes globally, the lack of progress among adolescents reminds advocates that they can’t breathe easy just yet.
AIDS is now the leading cause of death among adolescents in Africa, and the second leading cause of death among adolescents worldwide, the Associated Press reported in February.
This demographic is often reluctant get tested and drops out of treatment programs because their emotional needs aren't properly addressed.
“I am worried for the young women and adolescent girls in Africa,” Sidibe said, according to the report. “Innovation is leaving them behind, and systems are shutting them out.”
All In, a new global campaign, aims to more effectively support this group by changing policies and getting more young people involved in the effort. Advocates say it’s also critical to expand prevention measures, and get more condoms into the hands of young people who need them.
“When it comes to condoms, we have seen a total market failure,” Sidibe said. “How can you achieve a successful prevention program if a person can only get eight condoms a year? We have to be serious about scale-up.”