It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the abundance of humanitarian issues and threats that face our increasingly global and complex postmodern society. Often it appears that one’s best efforts toward change have little to no effect. For that reason, one of the most exceptional gifts life can offer is that crucial and rare opportunity to make real, tangible change on a large scale.
This opportunity has manifested itself in the AIDS crisis.
Contrary to a widespread misconception that HIV/AIDS was a concern chronologically gridlocked to the 1980’s, it currently remains one of the greatest public health crises of our time. As of 2015, 36.7 million people were living with HIV globally, and 1.1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses. Due to extreme poverty, legislative discrimination, and a variety of other institutional factors, the epidemic is especially pertinent in Sub-Saharan Africa (regions including Western, Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa). In 2015, people in these areas represented roughly 69.5% of the total population infected with HIV, and roughly 72.1% of the total of people who died from AIDS-related illnesses, despite being only 13.3% of the world’s population.These numbers should give pause to anyone who considers themselves an empathetic global citizen.
Ending this crisis, however, is no longer a matter of hypothetical theorization and speculation. UNAIDS, an international coalition designed to fight HIV/AIDS, has endowed us with an invaluable opportunity; that of a finish line. Recently, they have announced their Fast-Track strategy to end the HIV/AIDS crisis by 2030. Before children born today see their first day of high school, an epidemic that has taken the lives of 35 million people will dwindle to a feeble ember.
The Fast-Track plan hinges on the first step: the year 2020. By this time, we hope that there will be only 500,000 new HIV infections among adults that year and that we will reach the “90–90–90” goal. This goal outlines that by 2020, 90% of people living with HIV/AIDS will know of their HIV status, 90% of people who know their status will receive treatment, and 90% of people who know their status receiving treatment will have a suppressed viral load so their immune system remains strong and they are no longer infectious. It also aims for zero discrimination, which references the many legislative and stigmatic institutional obstacles that prevent proper prevention and treatment from reaching people in need. For example, currently 74 countries consider homosexuality to be a crime.
If this goal is achieved, ending the AIDS epidemic is entirely achievable. If the resources are properly invested in and applied, by 2030, there will only be 200,000 new HIV infections among adults and the “90–90–90” plan will improve to “95–95–95.” In this scenario, from now until 2030, 28 million HIV infections will be averted and there will be a 15-fold return on investments. Twenty-one million lives would be saved.
We can be certain that this is achievable because the prevention and treatment methods workand are accessible. With a combination of antiretroviral therapy and preventative measures such as condom investment and sex education (among others), new infections of HIV declined by 38% between 2001 and 2013, and AIDS-related deaths declined by 35% between 2005 and 2013. We are not shooting in the dark against this epidemic. We have the tools, technology, and research to fight it, and to fight it well.
The indisputable excitement and tangibility of these goals does not, however, give permission to scale back efforts. In fact, the very opposite is required. We are not currently on track to stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic if we continue in proportion to our current efforts. If we continue to apply the same level of investment, the AIDS epidemic will not only continue — it will bounce back stronger than before. In low-and-middle income nations, instead of 200,000 new HIV infections in the year 2030, as the Fast-Track goal outlines, there would be 2.5 million. Instead of only 300,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2030 in low-and-middle income nations, as the Fast-Track goal outlines, there would be 2.1 million. The simple fact is that our efforts have done a lot to curtail the AIDS epidemic up until this point, but are not nearly enough to end it.
Now is the turning point.
Thus, the number 2030 should have significant meaning to us. It represents a buoyant optimism, as we can end a disastrous public health crisis that has taken dozens of millions of innocent lives, and we can watch it wither down to impotency within our lifetimes. But it is not the stuff of quixotic dreams or distant hopes; it is a direct call-to-action. As was mentioned before, the opportunity to make substantial change in the grand picture of the world is unique and incredible. We are presented with this possibility, but with it comes a responsibility to act. Idleness is complacency, and complacency could mean the difference between life or death for 21 million people between now and 2030. Ending the AIDS epidemic isn’t mere philanthropy — it’s an active fight.
So, demand of your politicians that this become an important national issue. Your senators, your mayors, your governors, your congressmen/women, and your President should be invested in this fight.
This is an issue that transcends borders and matters to all of us, regardless of race, religion, ideology, or location.
Involve yourself. Donate to/volunteer for organizations like the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, which has been one of the most active and successful participants in the fight against the pediatric side of HIV/AIDS. Participate in AIDS Walks across the country. Involve yourself in local events for World AIDS Day on December 1st. There are dozens of foundations, organizations, charities, and events, both local and national, participating in ending a preventable and treatable pandemic.
Educate yourself. Resources like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, AIDSinfo, AIDS.gov, and UNAIDS provide an endless cascade of information about the nature of HIV/AIDS and what can be done to stop it. Education is central to combating the stigma which often translates to legislation, making an end to the epidemic exponentially more difficult to achieve. Have these conversations with people you love and know, and people you don’t. Your neighbor may not be the sole key to ending AIDS in our lifetime, but he or she is another step toward that goal.
As I mentioned before, it is a rare and beautiful thing when an opportunity is presented to make a palpable and significant difference in an overwhelming world. Let’s not waste this one.