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From the frontline: What we’ve learned from those most affected by AIDS

An award-winning actor and the president of a non-profit may not seem to have much in common. However, though our professional roots may be quite different, we proudly share the role of HIV/AIDS advocate.

The commemoration of World AIDS Day brings to mind our paths in coming to this calling. Here, too, we share more similarities than differences. It is the lessons we learned traveling to the countries most affected by HIV/AIDS that have made us both passionate about this public health emergency.

{mosads}Because we have seen the ravages of the disease firsthand, it has become much more than numbers for us. Numbers — like 35 million people living with HIV, 70 percent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa; or 10 to 20 percent, which is how much greater the rate of prevalence for HIV is among vulnerable populations like women and girls or 50 percent, the increase of AIDS-related deaths among adolescents ages 15 – 24 between 2005 and 2012 — are shocking, to be sure. Yet it is not the numbers, but the individual stories behind them that have taught us the most.

In her role as Population Services International (PSI) ambassador, Ashley has traveled the world, meeting people like Kausar. A mother of two in Dharavi, India, Kausar was told by her doctor upon finding out she was HIV-positive, “There are drugs, but you cannot afford them, and you’ll be dead in five years anyway.” Rather than accept this fate, she decided to fight — literally. She slapped the doctor’s face, which landed her in front of a judge. Thankfully, she won the case and went on to continue fighting. She fought not only for herself — getting the necessary medications — but for her entire community, transforming her life and those of the people around her. Kausar now serves as a PSI peer educator. She has managed to not just survive, but to rise above circumstances many of us cannot imagine.

A trip to Zambia, and the opportunity to meet Isther, a young mother of three, had a similarly significant impact on Deb. During her first pregnancy, Isther and her husband tested for HIV and learned that they were both positive. Not that long ago, the story might have ended tragically. Instead, they started treatment, and Isther received services to prevent transmission to her child. Not only was her baby born HIV-negative, but two years later she gave birth to a healthy set of twins. Today, Isther and her family are healthy and happy, and all three children remain HIV-free.

Stories of hope like Kausar and Isther’s have taught us several critical lessons:

  • U.S. leadership has been instrumental in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The Global Fund, of which the United States is the largest donor, and the U.S. government’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) account for roughly 80 percent of international assistance.

  • Partnerships are paramount. Financing is only part of the solution; it is technical partners — including PEPFAR, the UN family, and NGOs such as PSI — that implement lifesaving programs on the ground.

  • Defeating HIV/AIDS is a shared responsibility. In order to sustain momentum over the long term, an increasing level of support will need to come from domestic resources. Already, implementing countries’ financial contributions are growing. Over 80 countries increased their domestic investments in the HIV/AIDS response by more than 50 percent between 2006 and 2011, and several nations in sub-Saharan Africa are evaluating innovative financing mechanisms to help bridge the gap between available resources and existing need.

  • Women and girls are central to the solution. Globally, girls and young women 15 to 24 — for whom HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death — are twice as likely to be at risk of infection as boys and young men in the same age group. This can be attributed to many factors, including unequal power in sexual relationships, gender-based violence, lack of economic control and poor access to health information and services.

  • Progress has been made. Global HIV/AIDS-related deaths have fallen 30 percent since their height in 2005. More than 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries now have access to treatment and new infections among children have fallen by 52 percent since 2001. 

    Each year, World AIDS Day is an opportunity to both evaluate what needs to be done to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS and to highlight stories of hope. On Dec. 2, global health champions and members of Congress will come together to celebrate a decade of progress in the fight against the disease. At an event co-hosted by Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Motion Picture Association of America, with the support of partners like PSI, we will acknowledge all that has been accomplished since the early, dark days of the crisis, and the United States’ critical role in these achievements. Most importantly, we will use this moment to galvanize ourselves to take the steps necessary to defeat the disease once and for all. Though our fight continues, we are eager for the day it is no longer necessary.

    Judd is an  actor, author, advocate and PSI ambassador, and Derrick is president of Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.


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