There is no cure or vaccine yet, but “the end of AIDS” was the buzzword at the opening ceremony of the International AIDS Conference in Washington DC on 22 July.
Wishful thinking? Not for Michel SidibÃ©, executive director of UNAIDS, who told over 20,000 delegates that “this time, it is different”, or for Jim Yong Kim, the new President of the World Bank Group and the first to address an international AIDS conference. “We can end AIDS, we must end AIDS. The challenge we face is great, but as I look out at all of you today, I can actually see the end of AIDS,” said Kim.
SidibÃ©’s list of how to reach the end of AIDS is not new: scale up treatment-as-prevention, put 15 million on people treatment by 2015, eliminate new infections in children, and close the funding gap.
Nonetheless there is reason for optimism. For the first time there are more people on treatment than those who need it, and new infections worldwide have declined by 20 percent since 2001. In South Africa at least 300,000 people started treatment in 2011, 150,000 started in Zimbabwe, and in China the number of people on treatment doubled in one year.
Even scientists are hopeful and on 19 July released a road map ahead of the conference for research toward a cure for HIV – the first time scientists have come up with a coordinated plan to tackle the virus.
“The science has been telling us for some time now that achieving a cure for HIV infection could be a realistic possibility. The time is right to take the opportunity to try and develop an HIV cure – we might regret never having tried,” said FranÃ§oise BarrÃ©-Sinoussi, the co-discoverer of HIV and Director of the Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris.
However, money remains a major obstacle. The new UNAIDS report says there is still a large gap in global funding for HIV, estimated to reach $7 billion by 2015.
“From many places in the developed world I am hearing, ‘We cannot afford to keep our promises; we have our own problems at home.’ Financial commitment from developed countries is declining… this gap is killing people,” SidibÃ© warned delegates.
The last International AIDS Conference was held in the US in 1990, but restrictions on the entry of people living with HIV into the country prohibited holding another conference in America until now.
President Barack Obama lifted the travel ban in 2010; the Republic of Korea announced at the conference that it had also removed its travel restrictions on HIV-positive people.