World abandoning promises on AIDS
On December 1, we commemorated World AIDS Day, acknowledging the many significant strides we’ve made to date in the 30 years since AIDS was first identified. But right now that progress is in peril, due to governments reneging on repeated promises to fund the fight against the pandemic.
Here’s the good news: HIV and AIDS can be stopped. We’re seeing positive signs in terms of both HIV transmission and treatment. Experience has shown that it’s possible to get HIV drugs to those in need where there is political will and financial commitment to use low-cost, generic drugs and mobilize resources for health systems. The last decade has seen a 22-fold increase in the number of people with HIV in developing countries getting life-saving medicines.
HIV treatment is also HIV prevention: a recent study showed that antiretroviral drugs can be 96 per cent effective at reducing onward transmission of the virus. All told, increased access to HIV drugs has saved an estimated 2.5 million lives in developing countries. These are huge successes that should inspire the world to step up the fight.
But here’s the sobering truth: stopping the AIDS pandemic requires sustained engagement from both donor and developing countries, political commitments that are backed by dollars. At this important juncture, we are seeing the results of previous concerted efforts and investments pay off, in lives saved and HIV infections averted.
Yet many donor countries have chosen precisely this moment to abandon their promises. At best, it’s an inexcusable apathy toward an ongoing global health crisis. At worst, it’s callous sabotaging of the global response that is criminally irresponsible.
Last week, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria - the single most important global initiative to scale up HIV prevention and treatment programs - announced that donor countries have failed to deliver on $2.2 billion (U.S.) of previously pledged funds. As a result, the Global Fund has been forced to cancel the next round of funding and exclude numerous countries. This will inevitably translate into millions of new cases of HIV, and millions of needless deaths.
Civil society is mobilizing. The call has gone up around the world for an emergency donors’ meeting to ensure the funds are in place to keep the Global Fund alive. Canada needs to heed that call and come to the table prepared to make the necessary commitments. Indeed, the same donor countries that spend trillions on war and bank bailouts must be held accountable for the relatively small amounts needed to save lives and end suffering. They must not abdicate their responsibilities.
Here in Canada, our government announced last year a welcome 20 per cent increase in the amount pledged to support the Global Fund. But it hasn’t yet delivered the money and must do so immediately. Our Prime Minister has committed to reducing maternal and child mortality in the developing world, and insisted that countries be held accountable for delivering on their aid pledges. Surely, then, this government must appreciate the critical importance of funding the fight against public health pandemics that kill millions of women and children every year.
Delivering on existing pledges without delay is critical, but it’s not enough. To put things in perspective: even with this increased pledge to the Global Fund, our contribution still comes to just over $5 per Canadian per year to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. And Canada is still far below the international target for foreign aid of 0.7 per cent of Canada’s gross national income. We must, and we can, do better.
Closer to home, HIV remains a serious public health challenge for Canadians: an estimated 65,000 people are living with HIV in Canada and HIV prevention efforts need to be sustained. Some populations, including aboriginal people, have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Unfortunately, annual funding for the federal government’s AIDS strategy has been flatlined since 2007. It’s also unclear to what degree federal commitments are secure in the coming years. Community organizations delivering HIV prevention and support services can’t afford any further erosion in funding. Neither can Canadians as a whole. Given that each case of HIV incurs $1.3 million in lifetime costs, when factoring in direct health-care costs and lost labour productivity, federal funding for HIV prevention, support and research more than pays for itself.
We can turn the tide on the spread of HIV - victory has never been closer. But we need to make sure that those with the power and the money use it toward achieving the goal of an end to AIDS.