It’s been 31 years since the first official World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, 1988, and it’s fair to say that vast progress has been made against this global epidemic.
What was once a death sentence is now treatable and perhaps, one day, curable.
“With no effective treatment available in the 1980s, there was little hope for those diagnosed with HIV, facing debilitating illness and certain death within years,” Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, director of the HIV Department at the World Health Organization (WHO), said in an article last year.
Today, stigma and lack of access remain as barriers to testing and treatment, especially for people living in poverty or where the LGBTQ+ community lives in fear or is faced with homophobic laws.
Still, the global health community continues to persevere — and this year marked some especially important milestones in the fight to end this global epidemic.
1. More Than Half of People Living with HIV Have Access to Treatment
While there are about 37.9 million people living with HIV, 24.5 million of them were receiving treatment as of mid-2019, according to UNAIDS.
UNAIDS' 90-90-90 targets look to ensure that 90% of people who are HIV-positive know their status, 90% of those diagnosed are receiving antiretroviral treatment and that 90% of people on that treatment have a level low enough that they don't risk transmitting the virus.
The most recent data showed that 79% of all people living with HIV knew their status, 62% were accessing treatment, and 53% were virally suppressed.
As the world looks to achieve Global Goal 3 to secure good health and well-being for all by 2030, tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic remains vital and reaching the 90-90-90 targets will play a large role in doing so. Efforts to reduce stigma around HIV/AIDS and empower the most vulnerable communities when it comes to access to health education and care are also crucial.
“In many parts of the world, significant progress has been made in reducing new HIV infections, reducing AIDS-related deaths, and reducing discrimination, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa, but gender inequality and denial of human rights are leaving many people behind,” Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS, said in a recent press release. “Social injustices, inequality, denial of citizenship rights, and stigma and discrimination are holding back progress against HIV and the Sustainable Development Goals.”
2. HIV Was Cured in a Second Human and in Mice
Advancements in scientific research have been significant in 2019.
In March, a case study about the “London patient” was published in the journal Nature, announcing that he was the second person ever to be cured of HIV.
Just like the first person to ever be cured, Timothy Ray Brown (aka the “Berlin patient”), the London patient’s HIV was cured thanks to a bone-marrow transplant that was meant to treat cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) that he was diagnosed with in 2012. He received a stem cell transplant in 2016 and has been HIV-free for 18 months.
Months later, in July, scientists announced that they had managed to completely eliminate HIV in some infected mice using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR, and a slow-release virus suppression drug.
While both the cure in mice and the cure in the cancer patients are far from perfect, catch-all cures for HIV/AIDS, they are certainly welcomed discoveries in the quest to put an end to an epidemic that has spanned across decades.
3. $14 Billion Was Pledged to the Global Fund
In October, commitments amounting to $14 billion for the next three years for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria were announced by donors in Lyon, France, at the Global Fund’s sixth replenishment conference.
The Global Fund is an international financing and partnership organization that was launched at a time when many vulnerable populations were struggling to confront cases of AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), and malaria.
While the Global Fund was created in 2002 and has been a driving force behind the treatment and elimination of AIDS, this year’s replenishment was especially significant — it marked the largest amount ever raised for a multilateral health organization.
New #HIV infections are in decline worldwide & more people living with HIV gain access to treatment, according to a new @UNAIDS report. As of mid-2019, nearly 2 out of 3 people with HIV were accessing treatment, but important gaps remain in order to meet global #health goals. pic.twitter.com/VhdyXxfAth— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) November 27, 2019
The funds will help avert 234 million infections and save 16 million lives by 2030, according to the Global Fund.
“The partnership between government and civil society, together with the meaningful involvement of communities, has allowed us to significantly reduce new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths,” said Sicily Kariuki, cabinet secretary for health in Kenya, said in a UNAIDS press release. “Communities are the very center of the AIDS response and are critical to ending AIDS.”
But work remains.
There were 1.7 million new cases of HIV around the world in 2018, and 4 out of 5 new HIV infections in adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa affect girls, according to UNAIDS.
And outside of Eastern and Southern Africa — where infection rates have declined by 28% since 2010 — the infection rates have only gone down by 4% since 2010.
New annual HIV infection rates also went up by 29% in eastern Europe and central Asia, by 10% in the Middle East and North Africa, and by 7% in Latin America.
Reducing the stigma around HIV is key in helping people get tested and accessing treatment, as is calling on world leaders and other key partners to take action and commit to funding research, health initiatives, and data collection.