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Annie Lennox Headshot
Dr. Mitchell Besser Headshot

We Can't Rest

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Annie: My first direct encounter with the African AIDS pandemic was ten years ago, when I took part in the launch of Nelson Mandela's HIV/AIDS Foundation 46664 in Cape Town. Soon after, I travelled to one of South Africa's rural provinces where I witnessed a booming business in the funeral trade; supermarkets selling coffins of all sizes; row upon row of open gravesites waiting to be filled with the newly deceased; scores of vulnerable children left to fend for themselves in "child headed" households or cared for by grandmothers or local orphanages. I visited broken down, understaffed hospitals and clinics, with endless lines of hollow-eyed ravaged people, brought in wheelbarrows or carried on backs for miles. It became clear to me that few people had fully acknowledged or understood the full scale of the human catastrophe Mandela described as a "genocide." The situation was so extreme that it was hard to grasp or comprehend the horrendous facts and statistics. An entire generation was being wiped out, but AIDS was (and still is) so stigmatizing that no one wanted to acknowledge it, especially the government at that time; where the president was quoted as saying that he didn't know anyone who had AIDS; and the health minister advocated vitamins, olive oil, garlic, beetroot and lemon juice as a remedy. In South Africa, one in three pregnant women was HIV positive. Across Africa, without access to life-saving treatment, millions of mothers were dying, leaving behind millions of orphaned children. From my perspective as a woman and mother, I felt the situation was an issue of fundamental human rights. Workable interventions would be required if lives were to be saved. A part of the solution begins with expectant mothers... I'll let Mitch explain how that happens.

Mitch: It was such a dark time. For those of us providing medical care to patients, we were frustrated and angry that we couldn't do more. In resource-rich countries where testing and treatment to prevent HIV positive mothers from infecting their babies was readily available, only one percent of babies were infected with HIV. And yet in Africa, where this care wasn't available, 40 percent of babies exposed to HIV by their mothers were infected; and mothers were dying. Political indifference, inadequate health systems, expensive pharmaceuticals; all of these contributed to the tragedy we were witnessing.

And then it began to change. Where I was working in Cape Town; and where my organization, mothers2mothers, was working across South Africa, HIV tests and antiretroviral drugs started to become available; first, for pregnant women to prevent them from transmitting the virus to their babies, and then for mothers and adults requiring life-saving treatment. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria launched in 2002 and the U.S. government's PEPFAR program, launched in 2003 and renewed in 2008, pumped billions of dollars into Ministries of Health and non-governmental organizations across Africa to build health systems and provide HIV/AIDS care. Organizations like the Clinton Foundation worked with pharmaceutical companies to make anti-retroviral treatment affordable. Civil society groups like South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign fought for access to care. And in small steps and then big, care was delivered.

We're seeing favorable trends now. Fewer people are dying of HIV/AIDS each year. The numbers are still terrible -- 1.7 million people died in 2011 -- but this is 25 percent less than in 2005. Fewer people are getting infected -- again, 2.5 million new infections in 2011 is a nightmare, but it's less than 3.2 million infections in 2001. And in 2011, a new plan was launched: The Global Plan towards the Elimination of New HIV Infections among Children by 2015 and Keeping Their Mothers Alive. The vision is so bold that by 2015 we can reduce by 90 percent the number of newly infected children and halve the number of mothers dying of AIDS by dedicating ourselves to the 22 countries that are responsible for 90 percent of the HIV infected children globally. In this effort we're seeing great success. The number of HIV-infected children has nearly halved since 2003. In South Africa, mother-to-child transmission rates are now 2 percent, close to the standard of success seen in resource rich countries. And this year, WHO's new consolidated guidelines for the care of people living with HIV has made 26 million of the 34 million people living with HIV eligible for lifelong, life-sustaining treatment.

We have a long way to go, but we've come a long way. Ten million people are now getting the treatment they need, ten-fold more than were on treatment a decade ago. We've done so much but there's so much more that needs to be done. There are still far too many people getting infected every year. We can't rest until we stop all children from being infected with HIV and orphaned because their mothers don't get the care they need. With the clock ticking towards the end of the Millennium Development Goals, we need to raise awareness. We need to ensure that nations continue to contribute generously to the Global Fund. We need to encourage the U.S. people to continue their humanitarian support for PEPFAR funding. Without sustained resources, all progress stops. The tragedy of each life lost is immeasurable; the tragedy of not completing what we've started is inconceivable.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Global Fund, as part of their joint Big Push digital campaign to fight AIDS, malaria and TB. To find out what you can do to help, click here.