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No Time to Rest in The War Against AIDS

By Susan Carey Dempsey on December 1, 2010No Comment

Unlike the more or less meaningless observances or ceremonies that have been designated for certain days of the year, World AIDS Day does seem to challenge us to take stock of how much further we need to go, even as we discern progress and true signs of hope. Anti-retroviral drugs have had enormous impact, where they are available, and prevention efforts have earned growing acceptance – seemingly even from the Pope himself these days.

But the more we see of how the advance of the worldwide scourge can be altered, the more deeply painful it is to witness its effects on those who still suffer without adequate care.

As she discusses on Huffington Post, Sheila Johnson has made a film, The Other City, about the people in Washington, D.C. who live with a staggeringly high rate of HIV/AIDS infection.

Our capital has an HIV/AIDS rate that’s higher than Dakar, the capital city of Senegal in western Africa, and higher than Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. For more than two decades, Washington, D.C. has suffered a growing AIDS epidemic that’s affected every part of the city, especially minority communities.

Johnson’s film, which premieres on Showtime tonight, spotlights the suffering as well as the solace provided in the Washington AIDS community by nonprofit community services and hospices.

On a global basis,  Doctors Without Borders  has warned sharply that the war on AIDS is facing double threats, according to Dr. Nathan Ford, medical coordinator for the group’s access to medicines campaign: 

On the one hand what we’re facing is the backsliding of funding commitments for HIV/AIDS in the developing world. At the same time, one of the other critical issues for scaling up HIV treatment has been assuring the most affordable cheap medicines that are available worldwide can be used to run these programs.

Ford pointed to the 2001 decision by an Indian manufacturer to sell drugs, which had cost as much as $10,000 per patient per year, for a dollar a day, as the true beginning of the global effort against AIDS. Now, according to a Voice of America news report, he asserts that secret trade negotiations under way in European Union threaten access to these affordable drugs for populations in developing nations.

They’re happening behind closed doors.  The knowledge we have of the current harmful policies that are being proposed comes very much from inside information.  And we’re unable to get full copies of where we stand.

A new study by the United Nations Children’s Fund says discrimination and stigmatization limit women and children getting access to HIV prevention, treatment and social protection. UNICEF is calling on the international community to step up efforts to provide universal access to lifesaving programs.

Following a change in World Health Organization guidelines, in low- and middle-income countries, 53 per cent of pregnant women living with HIV received antiretrovirals (ARVs) to prevent mother-to-child transmission in 2009, compared to 45 per cent in 2008.   One of the most significant increases occurred in Eastern and Southern Africa, where the proportion jumped ten percentage points, from 58 in 2008 to 68 per cent in 2009. But, said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s Director-General, there is much more to be done:

We have strong evidence that elimination of mother-to-child transmission is achievable. Achieving the goal will require much better prevention among women and mothers in the first place.

Under the new WHO guidelines, the number of children under the age of 15 who received treatment rose from 275,300 in 2008 to 356,400 in 2009. Still, this increase means that only 28 per cent of the 1.27 million children estimated to be in need of ART receive it.

If there are snippets of encouraging news on this 22nd World AIDS Day, they are muted by the painful reminders that this ravaging disease has not been conquered. Indeed, an ironic danger has evolved, partly as a result of perceptions of progress, wherein young people, here in the United States as elsewhere, are ignoring – or simply ignorant of – the danger the disease poses to their generation.

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, information and awareness have been critical weapons in the fight to control and extinguish the disease. Let’s not let complacency or ignorance slow the progress that must continue on several fronts. 

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