42 years into the AIDS epidemic and we have made impressive strides in the development and dissemination of HIV treatment and preventative measures, supported largely through initiatives like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. This we celebrate and are deeply grateful for.
The impact of providing access to HIV treatment and preventative pre-exposure technologies to communities ravaged by this disease, means that AIDS is no longer a death sentence. Rapid scale-up of antiretroviral therapy has meant that people living with HIV, with continued use, are living healthier and longer lives, with a near-normal life expectancy. We are seeing communities becoming strong and resilient again, countries taking ownership and new benchmarks of health and wellbeing being set on the African continent.
But the impact of ART extends beyond treatment. The effectiveness of ART lies in part in its ability to curb viral multiplication, which in turn has the potential of lowering a person’s viral load to untransmittable levels, thus, disrupting the infection cycle and spread of HIV to others. A significant caveat to remember though is that despite the ongoing, magnificent efforts in the lab and in the field, we are yet to discover an effective vaccine and a scalable cure for those living with HIV. Disengage too soon and we lose all the gains we have made to date and slide back to a situation far worse than we could ever have imagined.
Although we have experienced miraculous change to the narrative surrounding AIDS in Africa and other disease-ravaged areas, it is critical, that as we continue to refine and extend existing treatment and prevention methods and advocate for access, we do not falter in our global pursuit to eradicating HIV/AIDS. We are beyond grateful to PEPFAR, which has been essential in supporting the response to the AIDS epidemic. However, the challenge remains, and rather than approaching the efforts and investments made over the past two decades from a point of “how much more will it take”, we need to be mindful of the strides we have made and consider the magnitude and reality of the alternative if it all ends here.
Our work does not and cannot end here! Lest we forget, in 2022 alone, close to half a million young people (aged 15-24 years) were newly infected with HIV and compared to adults, adolescents have lower rates of HIV testing (i.e., do not know their status), disclosure, treatment adherence, and viral suppression.
The challenge remains, and we need continued global efforts and investment in getting this job done. Without it, we jeopardise empowering and equipping the future generation from being and staying HIV-free.
Article by Professor Linda-Gail Bekker, CEO, Desmond Tutu Health Foundation