What a span of 30 years can do.
Fear can ferment; havoc can be wrecked.
For the brave, such fears can be confronted, courage can be mustered; challenges vanquished, the sweet taste of victory savoured.
A generation can be born and come of age. Epochs can be defined. All in a matters of 30 years.
Some 3 decades ago, HIV was a nameless virus without face or form. By mid 90s, it had managed to become the number one killer of young people in much of the world. Within these 15 years, not only had the virus gotten its feared name, it had also managed to reign terror in our collective psyche; HIV had become synonymous with a death sentence.
Up until today, some 25 million people are estimated to have died due to the virus including more than 4 million children. Around 34 million people are walking around with the virus.
In some sub saharan countries, as much as a third of the adult population has the virus. Without much access to treatment, entire cohort of people were wiped out. Schools ran out of teachers, farms out of farm hands, factories out of workers; even hospitals ran out of health workers. Homes ran out of parents, leaving behind helpless kids and equally helpless grandparents to tend after them.
Economies shrank, nations were shaken.
To those who were infected, as much physically debilitating the virus was, it was equally emotionally stigmatising. Infected people were treated as social scum, their moral standards were questioned. The readymade assumption was, if you were sleeping around shamelessly what better did you expect? Well the little unborn kid had little where else to sleep but for the mother’s uterus. No one was willing to take note of the invisible socio-economic drivers that were fuelling the epidemic in the most vulnerable patient populations.
In late 1980s AZT came along. By the mid 90s a bunch of other medicines followed, and also the spark of idea that drugs worked much better in combination than as standalone preparation. Science continued to advance, the virus as much form-shifting as it was, was better understood.
In the same time an avalanche of advocacy was launched. Governments were forced to sit down and listen, societies were exposed of the duplicity of their mockery of infected people.
An outpouring of generosity ensued. The US alone spent billions of dollars in form of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) so treatment access could be increased across the developing world, mostly in Africa. Resources were pooled, in the form of the The Global Fund. And startling progress has been made since then. In what looked like an insuperable suffering, now the advance of the tide looks like has been halted. 8 million people in the low and middle income countries alone are in AIDS treatment.
Today before the International AIDS Conference kicks off in Washington DC, there is much we can sit back and reflect over the journey of the past three decades. AIDS deaths have been showing a steady decline, from their peak of 2.3 million in 2005. 100,000 less AIDS deaths were estimated last year than the year preceding that; there were also less new infections by a similar margin. Infections in newborns have been downtrending steadily as well.
Suddenly “halting the tide” and an “AIDS free generation” do not sound like a hyperbolic activist slogan anymore. They appear to be within the reach, given a steady commitment on a global scale to upturn this menace.
Things indeed look like they have come around a circle in these 30 years.