David's Blog: An AIDS-free Generation
By David Morley
President and CEO, UNICEF Canada
About a decade ago I was working in Central America with some of the world’s most marginalized children – HIV-positive commercial sex workers. I was angry. What could be worse than a world where a child knowingly risked exposing herself to the HIV virus just because she was hungry and this was the only way she could earn some money? Why was the anti-AIDS medication so expensive – at a price so high it condemned millions to death? Even though the powerful knew this was happening, I fumed, they still turned away and let these children die. How could we make the world notice and act to fight this disease?
Back in Canada, I joined the global campaign “Access to Essential Medicines,” and after long advocacy fights we saw the price of anti-retrovirals, the medicine that stops the HIV virus from developing into full-blown and deadly AIDS, plummet from $20,000 per person per year to around $100 per person per year. With the medicine now affordable, we could help deliver it, and a few years later I was lucky enough to spend time with a Doctors Without Borders team in northern Zambia, proving that it was possible to deliver this medication in the most remote parts of Africa – and to help strengthen the local health system so it could happen without the direct support of foreigners.
And then just three or four years ago I found myself in a public hospital in Kenya, with a functioning AIDS care system delivering treatment and counseling to people who came there. I asked the young Kenyan pharmacists about the medicines, and they said, “We always have enough, and the people can go on living normal lives.”
What incredible progress! In a few years we went from HIV being a death sentence, destroying families and threatening to orphan an entire generation, to now where living with the disease has become possible. But we are still not far enough. If people continue to contract HIV, the life-long treatment it requires and the need to develop new drugs as the virus grows resistant to current drugs will continue to put lives at risk. The stigma around AIDS will continue to make many people resist testing. Even though 370,000 children are born HIV positive every year, we still do not have pediatric formulations of the medicine that will save their lives.
So we need to go further. And we can do it! UNICEF is working on a plan to eliminate new-child infections by 2015. We know what needs to be done to eliminate the transmission of HIV from mothers to babies – now we need to scale it up. We know what will work to reduce new infections in young people and adolescents – now we need to do it.
We are close – an AIDS-free generation will, in the years ahead, lead to an AIDS-free world. The savings in human suffering, in broken families, in damaged lives, and, for the economists amongst us, in economic burden, are huge. The cost will be relatively small. Together UNICEF, NGOs, academic institutions, researchers, drug companies, governments, can make it happen. History will judge us if we do not even try.
A decade ago the young people I was working with were doomed to die young. Today an AIDS-free generation is within our grasp. Let’s seize the moment now.