This year's World AIDS Day marks the 30-year anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV. For many years, this day was a day of remembrance and of mourning.
Those reflecting on past ceremonies today remember AIDS blankets, international crisis conferences, and never-ending stories of global victims who were given the disease by unknowing or medically ignorant partners.
In the past year, however, new advances have been made in the field of HIV/AIDS research, and as U.S. President Barack Obama announces his recommitment to ending the deadly disease in America, things seem more optimistic than they have in years.
As Americans and people from around the world commemorate World AIDS Day 2011, however, it is also important to note how far treatment, education and prevention still has to go. Stigma surrounding the disease, apathy towards its prevention and treatment, and overwhelming disparties based on wealth and social class mean the virus, while beatable, is far from vanquished.
Many medical advances have been made in the past few years to combat the spread and infection of the deadly virus. One drug, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP), is not treatment-based but preventative, one of the first of its kind and certainly the most effective so far. Patients taking PreP have their chances of getting infected dramatically reduced.
Scientific studies over the past year, meanwhile, have demonstrated that starting treatment in the earliest stages of HIV/AIDS can not only alleviate symptoms but stop them appearing altogether. Other drugs and treatment options have extended life expectancy for those infected exponentially.
In 2008, an HIV-positive 20-year-old could expect to live to 69, already dozens of years longer than in the early years of the outbreak. Now that average is even higher. With highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), life expectancy can be as high as 75-80 years old if treated earlier.
Obama's Global Initiative
The good news comes as President Obama announces new initiatives to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS in the U.S., and to increase treatment options for those already infected.
Senior Obama officials told reporters that the president has set a goal of getting antiretroviral drugs to 2 million more people around the world by the end of 2013, and distribute medication to 1.5 million HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent them passing the virus to their children. The programs will target 15 countries hit hardest by AIDS, 12 of them in Africa.
The global component builds on the President's Emergency Plans for AIDS Relief, launched by President Bush in 2003. Obama will also increase funding for combating HIV/AIDS in the U.S. by $50 million, the bulk of which ($35 million) will go to state programs that help HIV-positive citizens get treatment.
The president will officially renew the U.S. commitment to ending HIV and AIDS at an event commemorating World AIDS Day 2011 tonight. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush will also speak via satellite.
'They sought the same goal.'
Representatives from both parties have already begun to praise Obama's expanded AIDS platform, commending the Republican and Democratic presidents for their bipartisan initiative.
Here's what we can do if we work together, said Gayle Smith, Obama's senior director for development and democracy at the National Security Council. We've got leaders of both political parties standing behind something that works.
Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman, also praised President Obama. He also urged both parties to stay in the bipartisan spirit of the initiative.
The only way to undermine this historic undertaking is if it becomes a partisan issue, he told AP. what important is they [Obama and Bush] have sought the same goal.
Cases Still on Rise
This recommitment to combating AIDS could not come too soon. Even as HIV treatment improves by leaps and bounds, disparities from country to country (especially within the African continent) and from class to class are often overlooked in the rushing tide of over-optimism, apathy, or even a continuing stigma surrounding the decades-old epidemic.
There is no doubt that the world, and the U.S. in particular, have come very far in the 30 years since HIV/AIDS first hit the world scene. But there's a long ways to go before World AIDS Day can become something more than a memorial.
Of the 34 million HIV-positive people worldwide, only about 20 percent receive any treatment for the deadly virus.
Many countries cannot afford or have not allocated the funds to distribute medication, HIV/AIDS treatments remain, in large part, inordinately expensive, and knowledge about the disease and its prevention is still shaky at best in many areas of the world.
The disease still carries a powerful stigma for many, and advances in medication have even made some people more reckless about prevention, believing they are safe from being infected.
Treatments Reveal Disparity
In the U.S., meanwhile, there is still a steadily growing disparity between those who can afford to treat the virus (or prevent it altogether) and those far more at risk.
Free testing for the virus is widely available, but treatments remain unaffordable without health insurance and incredibly expensive even with coverage. As Dr. Robert Klitzman points out in an article for The Huffington Post, HIV remains a poor person's disease, operating as a divide between the haves and have-nots worldwide.
And only last month, President Obama lifted a 22-year-old ban on those living with HIV entering the country, a move that had prevented international AIDS conferences as well as discriminating against those infected by the disease.
Apathy and Stigma Still Issues
The eradication of HIV/AIDS will never be truly successful unless the apathy towards treatment and stigma surrounding the disease is lessened or erased.
Many in the U.S. and other countries see World AIDS Day 2011 and ask: Why should I care? In the 30 years since its first recorded outbreak in the U.S., those infected no longer walk the streets of New York and San Francisco covered in the signature boils and scars that were once a sure sign of infection.
Dire warnings about the spread of HIV no longer carry the same urgency as they did even fifteen years before. Many young adults don't even remember when AIDS epidemic was an issue that affected their parents, not someone in another country they'd never met.
Across the nation and around the world, meanwhile, HIV/AIDS still carries the burden of stigma, especially homophobic stigma. Once known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), it is still called the gay cancer in some areas. In some countries in Africa and Central or South America, it can even seen as a form of divine punishment for being gay.
It is important, 30 years after doctors first discovered the deadly virus, to note the tremendous advances that have been made in the understanding of and treatment for HIV/AIDS. As President Obama prepares to launch his global initiative to combat the disease, however, it is also important to note how much further America, and the world, has to go.