By U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Since the first AIDS Conference in 2000, held right here in Durban, our battle to eradicate HIV and AIDS across the world has won many victories. Since 2010, new HIV infections have fallen by 6% and nearly half of the people living with the virus have access to antiretroviral therapy treatments.
But as we return to Durban for the 2016 AIDS Conference, we know that much work still remains to win this war.
In 2015, UNAIDS released a stark report finding that without a drastic acceleration in efforts to combat HIV over the next five years, we risk it rebounding out of control. UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé said: “the next five years provide a fragile window of opportunity to fast-track the response and end the AIDS epidemic by 2030… If we don’t, the human and financial consequences will be catastrophic.”
Today, nearly 37 million people are living with the virus, including almost 3 million children. Tragically, this epidemic continues to target many of the world’s most vulnerable and underserved populations.
In the U.S. Congress, my colleagues and I are working to ensure that the U.S. does its part to fight this epidemic. Last week, we advanced a spending bill that includes nearly $34 billion for domestic and global HIV efforts, a 3% increase from last year’s levels. These new resources will support critical programs, like PEPFAR, that save lives.
In the 13 years since my colleagues and I in the Congressional Black Congress worked with President George W. Bush to craft the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the program has supported life-saving antiretroviral treatment for 9.5 million people and provided testing services to more than 68.5 million. As we work toward an AIDS-free generation, testing, treatment and support is vital to our long-term success.
However, we must ensure that these resources reach the most at-risk and underserved.
In particular, adolescent girls and young women across the world face rigid obstacles to treatment and prevention, despite experiencing higher rates of new infections. In sub-Saharan Africa, 71% of all new adolescent HIV infections are amongst girls. The new DREAMS program is an ambitious $385 million partnership between the U.S., corporations, non-profits and 10 African nations that seeks to address this dangerous increase in infections.
Additionally, gay and bisexual men continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV. In the U.S. and around the world, they face extraordinary difficulties in accessing treatment because of stigmatizing barriers that must be removed.
In order to end this epidemic, we must embrace these underserved and highly vulnerable communities.
By advocating for Access, Equity, Rights, NOW, we bring these issues into light and help bring about an end to AIDS.
While treatment and prevention remain critical, we cannot discount the importance of destigmatizing HIV. This stigma creates an unproductive silence that makes treatment and prevention more difficult while reinforcing outdated beliefs that put more people at risk.
As HIV advocates, it is our duty to not only look at our progress, but to look forward to place where progress has yet to make.
The time to address our globe’s underserved communities is now. We cannot allow a single person to suffer from lack of treatment or access any longer.
We must come together to empower every voice to make a real difference in the fight against HIV. Millions of people and future generations are counting on us to constantly move forward and win this war.
We can make the dream of an AIDS-free generation but only if we commit to not leaving anyone behind.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents California’s East Bay, including Oakland and Berkeley, in the U.S. Congress. She serves on the Appropriations and Budget Committees and she is the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus. Since entering Congress, she has authored or co-authored every major piece of HIV/AIDS legislation.