Setting off to New Orleans for university in 1981 was a big leap culturally, not just academically. For the first time, I encountered gay culture sprinkled throughout town, especially in the French Quarter. I also witnessed the fierce outbreak of the global AIDS epidemic in the city.
I recall noticing sarcoma lesions among customers in the place where I waitressed, and hearing of friends’ colleagues not reporting to work, later dying. I was 20 years old. AIDS seemed spooky, out of control and incredibly harsh.
Abroad, it was worse yet. The world stood by wringing its hands as the HIV/AIDS scourge began consuming thousands in Africa. The late AIDS and TB activist Winstone Zulu described the scene in Zambia: Armies of people were digging graves every night to prepare for funerals during the day. AIDS has claimed the lives of 30 million people over the past 30 years, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa, far off the U.S. political radar.
AIDs spread beyond stereotypes, becoming a leading cause of death among young African-American women in their 20s and 30s.
The workforce across the African continent shrunk amid the crisis, while the number of aging grandmothers caring for AIDS orphans increased sharply. Currently, about one in 150 people worldwide remain infected with HIV.
With the rise of antiretrovirals (ARVs) in the West, AIDS was no longer a certain death knell for those diagnosed. But diagnosis remained stigmatic.
For years, ARVs remained beyond the economic reach of developing nations: The treatment was thought to be too hard and too expensive to make a difference in Africa. But then came President Bush’s AIDS initiative (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Both programs have been pivotal in addressing AIDS in low- and middle-income countries, like those in Africa.
More than eight million people now receive life-saving treatment, up from just 100,000 in 2000. By providing some 3.6 million HIV-positive patients with ARVs, the Global Fund has lowered transmission rates from mother to child to 96 percent. Early prevention can also reduce TB, the No. 1 killer of those with AIDS, by 80 percent or more.
To tackle the disease globally, the Global Fund needs $5 billion per year. If a single political campaign is worth this much, isn’t the end of AIDS?
Investing now will reduce not only deaths but also the long-run cost of the AIDS response, which costs will only increase as the status quo lingers. By investing now, we can treat more people, reduce transmission and save more lives for less money. A joint United Nations Programme Report on AIDS cites a 2011 study indicating that investment in antiretroviral-therapy programs to date significantly influences increased economic activity and labor-force productivity in low- and middle-income countries, more than offsetting the cost of the drugs.
President Obama has publicly promised support of Global Fund measures. But he can’t act alone. He told us as much on the campaign trail. The AIDs challenge can be met by the will of the people. It’s up to us to contact our local representatives in the House and Senate. We must tell them we’re too close to victory to stifle the advances, and ask them to fully fund the Global Fund. The end of AIDS is not just a dream — it can be a reality — but only with action.
Carla M. Barrow is an attorney and group leader of RESULTS (Miami Chapter), a grassroots nonprofit group that advocates for programs to end poverty.