On the occasion of World AIDS day on 1st December, President Barack Obama vowed to boost U.S. efforts to fight AIDS with a new target of providing treatment to 6 million people worldwide by 2013, up from an earlier goal of 4 million.
Obama spoke at the forum on AIDS turning 30, “We can beat this disease. We can win this fight. We just have to keep at it, today, tomorrow, and every day until we get to zero… As we go forward, we need to keep refining our strategy so that we're saving as many lives as possible. We need to listen when the scientific community focuses on prevention.”
His predecessor George W. Bush, who sought to make the fight against AIDS and HIV a signature issue of his presidency, spoke by satellite to the Washington event sponsored by the ONE campaign, an organization dedicated to fighting poverty and preventable disease.
United States is the largest global AIDS donor. Advocacy groups are happy with the commitments since there is a major funding shortage for AIDS. Annual funding for HIV and AIDS programs fell to $15 billion last year, well below the $22 billion to $24 billion United Nations agencies say is needed by 2015.
“We hope this marks the end of donors walking away from supporting global HIV/AIDS, despite evidence that the epidemic can be reversed.” Dr. Tido von Schoen-Angerer of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said in a statement.
On evaluation of current HIV status figures showed new HIV infections fell to 2.7 million in 2010, down from 3.1 million in 2001, while the total number of people getting life-saving AIDS drugs rose to 6.65 million in 2010 from just 400,000 in 2003. But that is still a minority of the 34 million people around the world who had the human immunodeficiency virus in 2010. Studies have also shown that suppressing the virus through treatment reduces HIV's spread to patients' partners by as much as 96 percent.
As part of a goal to achieve “an AIDS-free generation,” Obama said the United States aimed to provide anti-retroviral drugs to more than 1.5 million HIV-positive pregnant women worldwide by 2013.
He announced a $50 million increase in spending on HIV and AIDS treatment in the United States, where only 28 percent of the 1.2 million Americans living with the infection have it under control, according to health officials. The funds would come from existing resources and would not require congressional approval, a White House official said.
“Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have consistently come together to fund this fight,” Obama said. “That's testament to the values that we share as Americans, a commitment that extends across party lines and that is demonstrated by President Bush and I joining you all today.”
Former president Bill Clinton also spoke to the gathering, by video link from Florida, making a suggestion that took much of the audience by surprise.
He proposed that Congress allow generic versions of patented AIDS drugs, which now cannot be sold in the United States, be made available for the next two years to low-income Americans. In two years, “the economic picture will be better and the health-care reimbursement system will be different,” he said, referring to the start of near-universal health insurance through the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. The people who would be eligible for low-price generics would presumably be people now getting the medicines through state AIDS drug assistance programs, although details of his proposal were not available.
Dr. Richard Marlink, executive director of the AIDS Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health said, “We think the end of AIDS is coming about.” There’s reason to hope that the deadly pandemic can be halted, Marlink said, because the last decade has seen an explosion of new scientific and medical information with which to battle the virus. “It’s not a simple silver bullet, but really a repertoire of what we call combination prevention,” Marlink said.
“We can’t get rid of the infection yet, we don’t have the cure,” he said. “But we can suppress it so it’s not replicating itself and prevent it from causing damage to our immune system.” There is a possibility of reducing the number of new infections by 95% in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, Marlink said. The same goes for minority communities in the U.S., which Marlink said has a disproportionate amount of new infections. But the key to fighting the pandemic lies in maintaining – even growing – the amount of funding for treatment and prevention programs, Marlink said.