Scientific advances v. Economic realities: World AIDS Day

Posted on December 1, 2011

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Living in Kenya means World Aids Day has a particular resonance to me this year. With 7.1 percent of adults between the ages of 15 and 49 infected with HIV, the country is at the forefront of the global battle against the disease. Indeed, the impact of HIV/AIDS has always been at its most devastating in Sub-Saharan Africa. Significant progress has been made over the years, yet an estimated 5.7 million people still live with the virus in South Africa, and new infections continue to outstrip those being treated. On this day alone, 5,760 children will lose a parent because of AIDS.

But progress has been and is being made. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS has led supreme efforts to fight the disease in areas where it is most prevalent. In Kenya, schemes include a male circumcision program, which has conducted 353,000 procedures across Kenya since 2008. Half of these were enabled by the Gates Foundation and the United States President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Kenya hopes to complete 860,000 procedures by the end of 2013. During a conversation with a friend in Nairobi a few days ago, I heard about new research that has proven that oral antiretroviral therapy (ART) protects uninfected sexual partners from HIV infection, with a 96 percent reduction in transmission. The study, conducted by the HIV Prevention Trials Network, demonstrated that there are drugs out there that could combat AIDS/HIV.

It is the development and successful testing of these drugs that will prompt Barack Obama to today declare “the beginning of the end” for AIDS. Yet for all this warranted optimism, there is a serious caveat. These drugs can only help to combat the spread of AIDS if they are rolled out across the board, to every person that needs them. Only 48 percent of Kenyans living with HIV/AIDS currently have access to the retroviral drugs that research has proved play such a huge part in preventing HIV transmission, meaning the goal of universal access is still way off. What is needed to meet that goal is continued, and preferably increased, funding. Yet at a time of global financial crisis, budget cuts threaten to stall the solid progress being made.

The Global Fund has been forced to call off what would have been its eleventh funding round, meaning fresh applications for funding cannot be accepted until 2014. This is in the wake of a dramatic cutting of aid budgets around the world. Oxfam has predicted that aid budgets are set for their biggest fall in 15 years as a result of austerity cuts in developed nations. The agency has calculated that aid will fall by at least $9.5 billion by the end of 2012, figures Oxfam calls “shameless and depressingly predictable”. Even those nations that haven’t explicitly cut their budgets will be providing less. The UK will continue to devote 0.7 percent of gross national income to aid, but as this has fallen cuts of over $1 billion are still inevitable. These cuts will affect the rollout of preventative drugs to areas that need them most while also resulting in dwindling stockpiles in those countries worst affected. With such positive developments in drugs available and so much effort and money already dedicated towards the fight against AIDS, it would be criminal if it was allowed to go to waste by the withdrawal of funding and the lack of a plan for the future at this crucial stage.

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