The AIDS epidemic has defined the global health agenda for an entire generation. The first AIDS-related deaths were diagnosed 35 years ago, and HIV rapidly became a global crisis. The epidemic threatened all countries and had the power to destabilize the most vulnerable. By 2000, AIDS had wiped out decades of development gains.
Today, many nations, including Cambodia, have taken great steps to get ahead of the virus. The country’s leadership has prioritized the AIDS response, implementing innovative HIV prevention, treatment, care and support policies, as well as programs and investments.
These bold actions have delivered results: Cambodia reduced the number of new HIV infections to less than 1,000 in 2015 and provides HIV treatment to 75 percent of people living with HIV in the country. Cambodia’s AIDS response is one of the most successful in Asia, where only about 40 percent of people living with HIV are accessing treatment. Life expectancy has increased and communities are stronger, building a positive future and contributing to the nation’s socioeconomic development.
Worldwide, there are now more than 17 million people with HIV who have access to antiretroviral medicines.
But as world leaders grapple with a growing number of global concerns and threats—including massive displacement, climate change and an uncertain economic outlook—it would be a misstep to let up on the response to HIV. AIDS deserves continued attention for three reasons:
- To restore dignity, health and hope to the people left behind in the AIDS response
- To build robust and resilient societies ready to face future health crises
- To serve as a beacon for what can be achieved through international solidarity and political will
Our generation has been presented with an opportunity that must not be thrown away. We have the technology, medicines and tools to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030, avoiding more than 17 million new HIV infections and saving almost 11 million lives.
But it won’t happen without sustained commitment, vision and leadership. There are major gaps in the AIDS response and many barriers still prevent people from accessing quality health care services.
Around half of the 37 million people living with HIV still do not know they have the virus. AIDS-related illnesses are the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age globally and the primary cause of death among adolescents in Africa. Stigmatization and discrimination too often stop people from accessing health care, including HIV prevention and treatment services that reduce new infections and save lives. In some regions of the world, the number of HIV infections is actually increasing.
This week, leaders will gather at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York to agree on a new Political Declaration on Ending AIDS. A key element will be creating the conditions necessary to achieve the UNAIDS 90-90-90 treatment target by 2020. This calls for 90 percent of people living with HIV to know their status, 90 percent of people who know their HIV-positive status to access antiretroviral treatment and 90 percent of people receiving treatment to have suppressed viral loads.
Meeting this treatment target will set the world on course to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Cambodia has even committed to achieving this goal earlier, by 2025, leading by example to make history. But bold leadership and stronger investment will continue to be required.
By 2020, combined domestic and international resources will need to increase by about one third to peak at an estimated $26.2 billion to reach this target and realize the vision of ending AIDS. A lack of investment now will result in the epidemic being prolonged indefinitely, and that would be a false economy.
Ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030 is a central part of achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals—the development agenda that world leaders signed in September. In New York this week, global leaders must underpin this generation’s commitment to ending AIDS and deliver on their pledge to ensure healthy lives for all.
AIDS is not over yet, but it can be.
Michel Sidibe is the executive director of UNAIDS.