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HIV/AIDS Is Still Everyone's Business

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Ten years ago, at the first UN General Assembly Session on AIDS, Richard Holbrooke, Bill Roedy of MTV, Peter Piot of UNAIDS and I established the Global Business Coalition on HIV & AIDS.

Those were heady days -- and with leading corporations such as Anglo American, Chevron, Daimler, MTV and Standard Chartered Bank -- we transformed the business response to AIDS around three key principles: establishing HIV prevention, testing and treatment programs for all employees; expanding these programs to local communities, and; employing the power of business advocacy to push for strengthened national and international AIDS responses.

Often forgotten was the initial role played by the UN in the mobilization of business. Besides providing seed-funding to the GBC, UNAIDS' Piot "donated" me -- a young international civil servant -- as Holbrooke's first Executive Director. I was subsequently succeeded by two exceptional leaders, Trevor Neilson and then, John Tedstrom.

The task -- and Richard Holbrooke -- were not always easy. I remember a 2002 visit Holbrooke, his wife Kati Marton and I made to South Africa to persuade its mining companies to join the fight. To the uninitiated Brit I was back then, I can only describe the shock as stomach-churning, when Holbrooke immediately dispensed niceties over lunch in one of their grand board rooms, and blasted the industry's leaders for their inaction. We had just seen the bars that had sprung up in the informal settlements surrounding the migrant mineworkers dormitories. "Every Friday from 9 p.m.," he charged, "HIV is transmitted there and your business is being destroyed."

Ten years later, the business response to AIDS -- particularly mining and oil -- is central to many AIDS strategies around the world. The GBC is now a powerful network of over 200 leading global corporations and is following the current public health trend to expand its mandate to include a broad range of health-related issues, which should be supported.

But global AIDS remains the same unprecedented threat to global health and social stability that Holbrooke understood it to be a decade ago. HIV is a slow moving, pernicious epidemic, with people unaware that they are infected for possibly many years. The full impact of this virus will take us decades to understand fully. The response to AIDS and its co-travelers TB and malaria, is thus going to be a long haul. We don't need the short-term horizons of politicians posturing at the UN. What we need is a long-term horizon, similar to that which drives the mining and oil industries, whose workers and businesses are still very much at risk of HIV.

This week, the UN is calling for a more than doubling of people on HIV treatment to 15 million by 2015. It's a laudable and ambitious target. But how on earth will we achieve this while development budgets in the US and Europe are flat-lining and even being cut?

It bears repeating: The response to AIDS is going to cost and it is going to take time. It will be foolish to cannibalize current budget allocations by funding HIV treatment at the expense of proven prevention strategies.

We need to remind forcefully the nations of the General Assembly of the promises they made in 2001. But we also need other "non governmental" partners like never before: the business community, particularly, can lead from the front by providing HIV treatment to workers with HIV, their families and local communities.

Ten years on, we also have a unique opportunity to take advantage of the "one pill once a day" HIV treatment that will help us create affordable, point of care treatment clinics right into the heart of the communities who need them. International networks of activists, health professionals and researchers, like the Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation, will partner with businesses and local communities, and be at the forefront of these new AIDS responses.

It is precisely this kind of creativity in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds that will be the real legacy of Holbrooke's ground-breaking and unwavering commitment to ending AIDS.