Saturday, July 26, 2008

AIDS deaths drop by half

We all know the bad news: Over 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, making it a pandemic, and some African countries are completely devastated. In South Africa, for example, 18 percent of the population is infected. It is estimated that 1,800 children a day become infected with HIV, mostly newborns. Amidst this dire news, however, glimmers of hope can be seen. Astonishingly, the annual number of AIDS deaths has fallen by half, from 3.9 million in 2001 to 2.1 million just six years later. AIDS is conquerable, and an end to the disease is within sight.

A recent UN report found that the spread of AIDS worldwide is finally slowing. The rate of new HIV infections peaked in 1998 and has been falling ever since then. The world is finally learning how to both treat and prevent the disease. Since we have now had several decades of living with AIDS, we can objectively review the results of international policies. Several countries, such as Cambodia, have been successful in curbing AIDS through a concerted educational effort via the media and schools. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, fewer teenagers are having sex, and condom use has increased, slowing the spread of the disease among fifteen to twenty-four year olds. Some countries, such as Thailand, have seen success by targeting prostitutes with condom education. Other governments have used public ad campaigns to spread facts about AIDS; in many developing countries myths persist about how the disease is contracted. In most countries, blood for transfusions is finally being screened for the disease. In southern India, where large numbers of the population are afflicted, the prevalence of HIV is slowing too. China denied the existence of any cases of AIDS for decades, but it has finally admitted its problem and is concentrating on solving it. The Chinese government is sending volunteers into rural villages to spread information, and it is also broadcasting a series of TV documentaries about AIDS.

After ignoring the disease for so long, the developed world is at last devoting necessary funds to the AIDS crisis. The trick is to use the funds wisely. The Copenhagen Consensus found that combating AIDS and malaria has the best return of any aid investment. Developed countries, charities, and NGOs are now allocating vast resources to fighting both diseases. Research devoted to the treatment of AIDS and malaria has been extraordinarily successful. Thanks to ARVs, anti-retroviral drugs that block HIV’s effects on the immune system, AIDS is no longer a death sentence for many people. The greatest difficulty is supplying the expensive drugs to the masses, though much progress has been made in this area, partly because generic drug manufacturers in India are willing to supply them very cheaply. This is thanks to a coalition of activists led by Bill Clinton, and helped by $15 billion in new funds made available by President Bush. Astonishingly, while in 2002 only 1 percent of Africans who needed the drugs had them, in 2007 28 percent – or 1.34 million people – were able to receive the treatment, and the number is growing. Likewise, one-third of all HIV-positive pregnant women are now receiving drugs that help prevent transmitting the disease to their newborns, compared to one in 10 in 2004. With continued funding, the world will keep seeing incredible progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS.