Friday, June 03, 2011

Thirty years of AIDS, and the chance it could end by 60

On the Thirtieth anniversary of the discovery of AIDS, the world stands in a position to totally defeat the disease. AIDS can be ended if the world is able to muster up enough money and political will.

Drugs that can keep people alive and even halt the disease spread are being distributed, but the drugs are not received by everyone sick with the disease because of lack of funding. Activists will need to keep the pressure on political leaders to make sure funding is kept in place or increased so that all AIDS sufferers can receive the live giving drugs.

From the Economist, we learn more about the great opportunity ahead for the world.

The 30th anniversary of the disease’s discovery has been taken by many as an occasion for hand-wringing. Yet the war on AIDS is going far better than anyone dared hope. A decade ago, half of the people in several southern African countries were expected to die of AIDS. Now, the death rate is dropping. In 2005 the disease killed 2.1m people. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 1.8m. Some 5m lives have already been saved by drug treatment. In 33 of the worst-affected countries the rate of new infections is down by 25% or more from its peak.

Even more hopeful is a recent study which suggests that the drugs used to treat AIDS may also stop its transmission (see article). If that proves true, the drugs could achieve much of what a vaccine would. The question for the world will no longer be whether it can wipe out the plague, but whether it is prepared to pay the price.

If AIDS is defeated, it will be thanks to an alliance of science, activism and altruism. The science has come from the world’s pharmaceutical companies, which leapt on the problem. In 1996 a batch of similar drugs, all of them inhibiting the activity of one of the AIDS virus’s crucial enzymes, appeared almost simultaneously. The effect was miraculous, if you (or your government) could afford the $15,000 a year that those drugs cost when they first came on the market.

Much of the activism came from rich-world gays. Having badgered drug companies into creating the new medicines, the activists bullied them into dropping the price. That would have happened anyway, but activism made it happen faster.

The altruism was aroused as it became clear by the mid-1990s that AIDS was not just a rich-world disease. Three-quarters of those affected were—and still are—in Africa. Unlike most infections, which strike children and the elderly, AIDS hits the most productive members of society: businessmen, civil servants, engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses. Thanks to an enormous effort by Western philanthropists and some politicians (this is one area where even the left should give credit to George Bush junior), a series of programmes has brought drugs to those infected.

The result is patchy. Not enough people—some 6.6m of the 16m who would most quickly benefit—are getting the drugs. And the pills are not a cure. Stop taking them, and the virus bounces back. But it is a huge step forward from ten years ago.

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