Dec. 1, 2011 at 8:11 AM ET
World AIDS Day is about recognizing how far we’ve come -- and how far we still have to go -- in the fight against a plague that has infected 60 million people and killed half of them.
But today, now 30 years into the epidemic, a series of setbacks threatens to dash hopes for the goal of an “AIDS-free generation.”
“Just when we were beginning to make the most progress, the rug was pulled from under us,” says David Barr, a leading activist with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition.
Through the efforts of activists and government leaders, 6.6 million infected people around the world are now getting the drugs that stave off death. But just as important as the health effect for individuals is the discovery that the drugs drop the amount of HIV in a person’s blood to near zero so they seldom infect others. As a result of the widespread treatment, the worldwide infection rate dropped 25 percent in the past decade, according to UNAIDS.
In response to the heartening news, the UN pledged in June to raise the number treated to 15 million by 2015.
But that won’t happen. In fact, far fewer people will soon be getting the lifesaving medication.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international agency that pays for about half of HIV treatment around the world, announced last week that its last pledge round had fallen so far short of expectations that it will give no new grants until at least 2014. It will also scale back on many of its current commitments.
And here at home, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that its latest numbers reveal that only 28 percent of this nation’s1.2 million infected individuals are getting the medications they need. Twenty percent of the infected have never been tested so neither they nor their sex partners know of the danger. The CDC called for more testing.
But even if people in the U.S. know they are infected, will they get treatment? More than 50 million Americans lack access to health insurance. The U.S. does have the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) to get medications to those who cannot afford them. But it is not clear whether or at what level Congress will re-authorize the program.
Even at current funding levels, the Kaiser Family Foundation counts more than 6,400 people in 12 states who are the waiting list for medications from ADAP. Though financed by the federal government, ADAP is administered by states, and 25 states are considering cutbacks to these programs.
These major blows to the war on AIDS require more than a day of red ribbons to set right.
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Robert Bazell is Chief Science and Medical Correspondent for NBC News.