Wednesday, November 21, 2007


This week’s news that UNAIDS—the leading UN agency charged with fighting AIDS around the globe—lowered it estimates downward of the number of people worldwide infected with the HIV virus from 39 million down to 33, was greeted with mixed reactions.

Of course, its cause for celebration to learn that 6 million less people may be infected with HIV than the UN previously thought. Even one less infection is cause for celebration, at a time when—in many parts of the world—HIV infection is grounds for being cast out of a community or being violently attacked.

However, let’s not give thanks just yet. We’re still talking about staggering levels of disease, with 6,800 people becoming infected with HIV each day, fueling an AIDS catastrophe in far too many places. Even the Harvard School of Public Health’s Daniel Halperin, an expert on HIV infection rates who questions UNAIDS estimates of HIV infections several years ago, was quick to add that “this doesn’t mean the epidemic is going away and everything is fine and now forget about it—not at all.”

“There are still about 10 countries in Southern Africa that are real nightmares,” Halperin told the New York Times.

The corresponding danger here—in addition to a virus that is still raging out of control worldwide—is that people will begin to let their guard down in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We still have far too much work to do to let that happen.

First, while the UNAIDS global figures for new infections may have dropped, the number of people living with the disease worldwide has increased because people with HIV are living longer, thanks to increased access to anti-retroviral drugs. The good news is that people are living longer with the disease; the challenge is to keep improving the quality of their lives, to protect their jobs and livelihoods and to keep them safe from violence aimed at them because of their HIV status. HIV positive people from around the globe still cannot travel easily to the United States, where the immigration laws are squarely lined up against them.

Secondly, this constantly morphing epidemic is not lessening in intensity, but simply shifting gears again. Infection rates may be lower than previously thought, but the lack of information about HIV status, the US’ refusal to fund domestic and international programs that teach prevention techniques other than abstinence, lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare for too many infected people abroad and in the United States, and the growing stigma and discrimination toward people living with HIV have combined to make this a powerful perfect storm of enormous proportions.

It would be a huge mistake for anyone—governments, heads of state, private funders, or NGOs, like Cable Positive, to pull back based upon UNAIDS new figures of global infections, or to pat ourselves on the back for There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.

“There’s still a huge epidemic out there that still needs huge resources to win the battle,” said Paul Zeitz, head of the Global AIDS Alliance. With 6,800 new infections occurring each day—and the majority of them in the US in the under 25-year old age group—we still have much work to do.

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