Although HIV statistics remain painfully high, for the first time scientists have begun to discuss the prospect of an AIDS-free generation. At the 19th International AIDS conference in Washington, DC, 25,000 activists, scientists, policymakers, and people living with HIV/AIDS convened to discuss the conference's theme, "Turning the Tide Together."
But turning this rhetoric into reality is a challenge--and not just for the community of researchers. Beneath the surface, 1.7 million individual lives are lost to AIDS every year, and many are those of young women: HIV is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age. Women between the ages of 15 and 24 who live in Sub-Saharan Africa are eight times more likely to live with HIV than men the same age, and 76 percent of all HIV-positive women live there. In response to these statistics, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the US National Institutes of Health, claims that what is needed is the will--political, organizational, and individual--to implement scientific breakthroughs.
Because of enduring poverty, prejudice, power imbalances, and a dearth of resources, HIV-infected persons in developing countries, especially women in Sub-Saharan Africa, are denied access to advances in science and affordable AIDS prevention and treatments. Increased funding and investment in AIDS research alone will not alleviate the disproportionate suffering and deaths resulting from contracting HIV by people in developing nations, particularly women. A concerted effort among the key players in the global health community--governments, foundations, international organizations, non-governmental agencies, drug companies, activists, researchers, and religious organizations--must occur in strategic global and local partnerships to decisively and comprehensively fight prejudice and poverty, increase awareness, and improve education. It is possible to turn the tide and eradicate AIDS, but it will take more than scientific breakthroughs.
The drop in annual AIDS-related fatalities from 2.3 million in 2005 to 1.7 million today is attributed to an increased number of people on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) drugs, first available nearly two decades ago. This, in combination with prevention, has resulted in a declining rate of infections. Targeted prevention includes condoms, drug treatment, male circumcision, and the end of mother-to-child transmission. Treatment costs less than US$200 annually, a substantial drop from US$10,000 less than two decades ago. ART drugs have been shown to stop the spread of HIV from person to person by suppressing the virus to undetectable levels. For this reason, it is crucial that all HIV-infected persons undergo treatment.
Marginalization, power imbalances, and insidious cultural gender norms leave large populations of women disproportionally more vulnerable to HIV infection than men. In Rwanda, for example, women who have been coerced into sex are 89 percent more likely to contract HIV. Food insecurity is an even more tangible leading contributor to this gender disparity. …