COPENHAGEN – Thirty years ago, the world got its first inkling of impending catastrophe when five young gay men in Los Angeles were struck down by the illness that became known as HIV/AIDS. Today, the disease has a truly global impact, claiming 1.8 million lives annually – the equivalent of wiping out the population of Washington, DC, three times every year.
Of course, there have been remarkable scientific breakthroughs since 1981. Scientists established that a previously unknown retrovirus was the cause of AIDS, and determined that the virus was primarily transmitted through sexual contact. They created tests that can establish a person’s HIV status or gauge the disease’s progression. They designed antiretroviral drugs that have made it possible for HIV infection to be a survivable chronic condition.
Alongside these advances, policymakers, human-rights advocates, and people living with HIV/AIDS have fought hard to reduce stigma and discrimination. And an unprecedented amount of funds has been invested in HIV treatment and prevention. By 2008, total resources for HIV programs in low- and middle-income countries were an incredible 50 times higher than they were just 12 years earlier.
But, despite this significant progress, the toll of HIV/AIDS remains excruciating. There are 2.4 million new infections annually and 34 million people living with HIV/AIDS who require treatment to stay alive. There is a widespread misperception in the developed world that we have already won the battle against HIV/AIDS. In reality, the crisis has merely become less visible.