Progress and Promises on AIDS:
Today, on World AIDS Day 2009, while looking for a statistic, I entered into Google the search: "HIV infections decrease". The sometimes precocious search engine offered an instantaneous correction: "did you mean HIV infections increase" [sic] No, I silently answered, frowning, before I caught myself attempting to communicate with a search engine. Then I flipped the search to Google News. Google News search also insisted I must mean "increase". So I finally got the statistic I was looking for, and then relented to Google's know-it-all suggestion and looked at "HIV infections increase". Google was wrong, as I already knew, HIV infections were actually decreasing. But I understand the reasoning, even if it's only algorithmic: The first search phrase, ending with "decrease", yielded only 1,940,000 results in .22 seconds, whereas the second, ending with "increase", gave 3,550,000 results in .18 seconds.
Just like the search engine, we brace ourselves for the worst with HIV/AIDS, we're habituated to hearing bad news. As the pandemic continues and effective methods for decreasing HIV infections, increasing treatment, and procuring funding seem at times as elusive as ten years ago, sometimes we need to look up once a year on AIDS day with some real intention just to see the inches gained in the sand we've been trying to get traction in.
Otherwise, even though the number of number of infections has decreased by 17% since 2001, all the World AIDS Days blur together and we're tempted to ask questions. Questions like -- has anything actually changed since the 20th World AIDS Day of 2007, when 61% of HIV infected population were women? Or from 2008 World AIDS Day? Or the first World AIDS Day 22 years ago?
Last year, on the the 21st World AIDS Day, we noted milestones like Bush's PEPFAR funding effort, and Barbara Hogan's appointment as South Africa's Health Minister. However, things change quickly in this area of public health, and this year brought both positive and negative news for PEPFAR and South Africa, two of our areas of interest.
The year started out promisingly, with Obama's inauguration and his pledge to pay even more attention to AIDS, especially for the recently increased national infections. He noted that his strategy would-
"...be based on the best available science and built on the foundation of a strong health care system"....however, he warned, "in the end, this epidemic can't be stopped by government alone, and money alone is not the answer either."
After being sworn in, Obama immediately got rid of the ban on international funding for groups that provided counseling on abortion. Condoms, an essential part of prevention, lost the evil connotation they had during the Bush administration. (The church took up the campaign when Pope Benedict XVI announced falsely in March that condoms would worsen the AIDS crisis). Obama was true to his campaigning words here. Science studies show that condoms are effective, and abstinence programs are not. Studies also show that attention to public health is central to preventing and treating infectious disease. Indeed, healthcare has been a theme of Obama's administration -- albeit to what end, we don't know. The president also recently lifted the HIV/AIDS travel ban, which has ostracized AIDS patients, something that's also been proven to undermine prevention and treatment programs.
Unfortunately, but again true to his word, Obama hasn't provided the leadership people hoped he would, even though government leadership has proven central to any successful HIV prevention and AIDS treatment program. Worse, although Obama the president-elect promised $1 billion per year in PEPFAR funding, the 2010 budget proposal contains only $366 million. The funding shortfalls have effected HIV and AIDS treatment programs, for instance eligible patients in Uganda are being turned away for lack of funds. The president's funding choices earned Obama a scathing D+ from AIDS NGOs.
Change in South Africa
In good news, South Africa's President Zuma has made several promises that show he's wised up from the time in court not long ago, when he defended himself on rape charges and said that a shower would prevent infection by HIV. Last month, Zuma promised that South Africa would vigorously address the national AIDS crisis.
Last May, when Zuma announced the reassignment of Barbara Hogan, whom he replaced with Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, there was some concern from South Africa's public health community about the assignment, concern the Dr. Motsoaledi was inexperienced, while Hogan's work was widely praised. However public health groups have since welcomed the new minister's straightforward acknowledgments of past mistakes.
We hope South Africa's new realizations -- like that the nation's deaths from AIDS increased more than 100 percent in 11 years -- are not just a rhetorical distancing of the ANC party from former President Thabo Mbeki's and his denialism, but a real commitment to an AIDS program. Optimistically, today Zuma announced the government's intention to treat all babies and pregnant women infected with AIDS.
In other major HIV/AIDS news this year, initial reports of a successful vaccine clinical trial in Thailand brought increased public attention and then consternation to later news of the same trial. The second news release informed the world that when researchers did further analysis of the results they doubted that the benefit was statistically significant. That's the way it goes though, steps forward, and steps back. The work continues tomorrow, and for the next 364 days we'll all work towards a more upbeat World AIDS Day 2010.