When HIV/AIDS first collided with public awareness in the early 1980s, many observers feared the emergence of a global, all-consuming pandemic beyond human control. Their concerns appear justified: so far the disease has killed over 25 million persons around the world. But today, three decades later, a new UN study suggests that the AIDS scourge may be following on the heels of other pandemics such as smallpox and the Black Death on its way to gradual extinction.
According to the UNAIDS OUTLOOK Report 2010, published in Geneva yesterday in the runup to the XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna next week, the twenty-five countries most strongly affected by AIDS are not only treating the disease as a priority issue, but are also showing great progress in slowing its spread. In fifteen of these countries, most notably in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, physicians have noted a twenty-five percent reduction in HIV infection among young people. In Kenya, there was a 60% decline in HIV prevalence between 2000 and 2005. Ethiopia has registered a decline of 47% of HIV cases among pregnant women in the cities and 29% in rural areas.
Click image to access the full UNAIDS report
In thirteen countries, mainly in Africa, young people are waiting longer before engaging in sexual behavior, and they also have fewer sexual partners than before. At the same time, condom use has soared. This dramatic improvement is largely due to a decline in taboos surrounding this subject and the spread of safe sex behaviors.
All this means that AIDS awareness programs and the development and deployment of new antiretroviral drugs are having a dramatic impact. But this is no time to declare victory: In many areas a solution to the crisis appears as distant - and downright utopian - as ever. For example, the report says, “In Africa the majority of infections occur through heterosexual sex, but in 2008 each adult male had access to only four condoms [emphasis added]. In Ghana more than 40% of infections occur through sex work, men having sex with men and injecting drug use, but only 0.24% of prevention spending went towards services for these populations.” In South Africa alone, up to a third of women in the 25-29 range are infected with HIV. The Catholic Church and other organizations systematically spread disinformation and block effective prevention measures in many areas. Today UNAIDS estimates that 33.4 million persons were living with AIDS at the end of 2008. 2.7 new HIV infections occurred that year and 2 million people died of the disease.
Currently only about a third of those requiring medications are receiving the right kind – if any. As a solution, UNAIDS is calling for a combination of approaches called “Treatment 2.0,” which it believes could prevent up to 10 million new AIDS-related deaths by 2025. Treatment 2.0 consists of the following measures:
In addition to working with heterosexual AIDS sufferers in the developing world, the report says, “UNAIDS has added a new priority area focusing on empowering men who have sex with men, sex workers and transgender people to protect themselves from HIV infection and to fully access antiretroviral therapy.”
The OUTLOOK report also contains the findings of a recent Zogby International poll surveying global attitudes towards AIDS. Among other things, it reveals astonishingly optimistic assessments of the chances of eradicating the disease by 2025: “The Caribbean region is the most positive of all the regions, where 91% are optimistic that with proper use of resources the spread of HIV can be stopped. They are followed by South and South-East Asia (75%) and Latin America (63%). In sub-Saharan Africa four in ten (40%) were optimistic—for example, in Senegal 48.7% were overall optimistic that HIV could be stopped by 2015.”
This upbeat attitude coincides with positive news on research to develop a reliable anti-AIDS vaccine. Today it looks as if such a vaccine, whether it takes five or fifteen years to develop, is no longer just a pipedream but a genuine work in progress. So while HIV/AIDS remains a scourge, it increasingly looks as if it’s a scourge whose time is running out. The question of how much time it has left has less to do with the virus itself than with our collective resolve to stamp it out forever.