What would the world look like without HIV? 34 million people would live freer, healthier lives. Communities that are currently affected would be thriving. Mothers would live to see their children grow up.
There are so many individuals and organizations working to create that vision. And as they work towards that end goal, there are many critical shorter-term goals to strive towards. These steps - those already achieved and those remaining - were discussed at last week's international AIDS2012 conference in Washington, DC. This enormously important event has received a lot of coverage, including from my fellow Huffington Post bloggers. Christy Turlington Burns has given an excellent overview of the facts and figures of the progress that has been made. The actress Debra Messing wrote a powerful account of her meeting with a HIV positive woman in Zambia and her own decision to get tested.
We cannot do enough to publicize this subject: to remind individuals to be responsible and get tested, and to urge governments and NGOs to continue funding HIV research.
One of the effects of conferences such as this one is to shed new light on old problems, to use current trends and updated statistics to continue to move in the right direction. At this year's conference, these reports underscored what we already know - it is women who bear the brunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Biologically, women are twice as likely as men to become infected with HIV through unprotected heterosexual intercourse, particularly significant when you consider that in many parts of the world women are more likely to be subjected to non-consensual sex than men, and are less likely to be in a position to determine condoms use. Furthermore, as caregivers and mothers, it is women who are often left to tend to the ill. Businessweek magazine summarized it well: "The AIDS epidemic increasingly is a female one."
Women who get pregnant may pass HIV on to a child, and while there has been a steady decline in mother-to-child transmission of the virus - truly a victory - NGOs acknowledged that follow-through care needs to be stronger. It is not only during pregnancy that mothers need to stay healthy but afterwards too, and over the course of their lives, not only for their sake, but for their children and their communities as well.
Many of these concerns connect with issues we discussed at the Dialogue for Action Africa held in Gabon this past June. Our panel on Improving Health Systems and Maternal Care focused on maternal mortality and reproductive rights and security. We explored the question of whether it is best to attack a problem in a way that is fast and effective - by training midwives and health-workers, for instance - or by working on long-term policy-related goals. Of course, both are needed. Attitudes have to change so that young people and adults are empowered to ask questions and talk about their situations openly. In the meantime, we need health-workers to save lives.
One unexpected thing I learned from this year's conference was of the high rate of HIV infection in Washington DC, the country's capital. This emphasized that there is still a long way to go, whichever part of the world you live in.
That's why it's so heartening to see organizations and individuals pushing forward, promoting scientific research and working to reduce social stigma around HIV. Let's continue on this journey and urge others to do so. We must ensure that one day, as soon as possible, our world will be AIDS free.