It is a humid day in the Sub-Saharan African heat. Outside a clinic, bodies are laid out and covered, waiting for families to claim them. Death is constant, drugs are a fantasy, available to some in other, more affluent parts of the world, but not here, where they are needed most. This is the face of the AIDS epidemic in 1999--when the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that AIDS was the number one cause of death in Africa, and when drugs were effectively unavailable in the developing world, barred by high prices and patent protections.
Flash forward to 2015. When I visit a hospital in Malawi I see many patients with AIDS, some are diagnosed early and put on lifesaving treatment. Others still arrive too late, with wasted bodies and infection--signs that their immune system has become totally compromised by the virus. While we’ve had many victories in the fight to end the epidemic this year and certainly made great strides since 1999, we have a long way to go to beat the epidemic once and for all--and we need leadership from the President and from Congress to get there.
These are exciting times that call for celebration but also for leadership from our president and from Congress to support robust funding for life-saving HIV/AIDS programs in order to achieve a five year scale up phase that will see the end of AIDS by 2030.
Unfortunately, what we have seen from our supposed champion in the White House over the past few years is just the opposite. President Obama has consistently cut the budget for AIDS while heralding the administration’s support and triumphs. Congress has fared only slightly better, flaunting self-congratulatory praise for restoring the President’s cuts while ignoring calls to restore cuts from previous year’s that have left the US flagship AIDS relief program, PEPFAR, stuck at 2010 funding levels. Champion presidential candidates, like Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham, Cruz proposal to defund the U.N. is misguided 9 GOP senators Trump must watch out for UN leader willing to meet lawmakers amid push to cut funding MORE (R-S.C.), who claim to truly care about this fight have made promises to restore funding and broken them. Sure, our champions have done work to keep PEPFAR funding at current levels, but this is hardly going to move us forward, and in fact, will cause us to lose ground.
This year, 2016, is going to be different. It has to be, if we don’t want to tip backwards and lose track of the progress we have made so far in the fight against AIDS. Champions of the fight will have to be champions in action, not just in words. It will no longer be enough to sing the praises of a program, to restore cuts, and certainly it will be unacceptable to MAKE cuts, as the president has done continuously. We need to get on the offensive to make the final push.
This is obviously pertinent and urgent for people living with HIV around the world. But is also an important push for all of us. Programs like PEPFAR have been shown to increase stability and security in regions where they are implemented and have installed surveillance and lab services that prevented the spread of Ebola in PEPFAR countries.. The fight to end AIDS is the fight for a more secure and peaceful future--for all of us.
This year, we can continue with business as usual. Make cuts, pat ourselves on the back for restoring them, keep funding flat, and start on a path that leads us back to 1999. To a demand for coffins that can’t be met, and regions destabilized by death and disease. We can do this, or, we can commit to scaling up over the next five years to end the epidemic of our generation, to making AIDS as we know it a thing of the past. It is our hope that the next generation of medical trainees will learn about the AIDS epidemic as just that--a thing of the past. That they will go to those same hospitals at which we have had the privilege of training in Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, and see patients thriving and receiving treatment immediately upon diagnosis. But we need to see real commitments this year from the President and Congress to get there.
Case is the Education and Advocacy fellow with the American Medical Student Association (AMSA). She is a recent medical graduate from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and works full-time with AMSA in Sterling, Virginia.