The International AIDS Society (IAS) kicked off it's biannual conference in Washington D.C. this week. These meetings are a really big deal for everyone working on the fight against HIV/AIDS, and this year's is especially noteworthy as we gather back here in the U.S. for the first time in over two decades. It's especially timely because scientists and activists alike are at a critical point where they can truly call for an 'end to AIDS.'
IAS is the world's leading independent association of HIV professionals. The IAS conferences are also recognized as the largest regular assemblies of any health issue focused on a single disease. The organization and the movement have certainly come a long way since the first AIDS conference back in 1985, with a mere 2,000 participants who convened mainly to discuss the necessity of sharing knowledge on scientific research. Today, AIDS 2012 is expected to have 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, including 2,000 journalists. It is a gathering of leading scientists, public health experts, policy makers and the HIV-affected community who join forces to seek an end to the pandemic. This year's conference features notable speakers such as Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Laura Bush and many more.
The conferences are always a time to reflect on progress made but, more than anything, they are an opportunity for experts and advocates from around the world to exchange ideas, scientific research and future plans, as well as increase awareness and promote new and effective action. 2012 marks the 19th biannual conference. The last time the International AIDS Conference was held in the United States was in San Francisco in 1990. In 1987, the U.S. Congress enacted legislation banning the entrance of all HIV-infected persons over the age of 14 years. The U.S. issued a waiver allowing HIV-positive delegates to attend the 1990 conference in San Francisco but refused to raise the ban outright. As a result, every IAS meeting since has been held outside of the United States, until now. In 2010, President Barrack Obama overturned the 22-year-old travel and immigration ban, opening the doors for this week's gathering. For the U.S., AIDS 2012 is a substantial step forward in terms of domestic and international achievements in global health. It is an incredible opportunity for the American public to show their support, particularly when considering the conference theme, "Turning the Tides Together."
A lot has changed since the 1980s, when the United States was a country with one of the greatest numbers of people infected with HIV. While there is still work to do here at home (including in the host city of Washington, D.C.), today the statistics have shifted to place the largest burden on developing countries. With a focus on preventing needless maternal deaths and improving maternal health globally, Every Mother Counts follows the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) very carefully, especially the health related goals. The MDGs are a set of eight international goals that set targets around ending poverty and hunger, extending universal education, gender equality, improving child health, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS,TB and malaria, environmental sustainability and global partnership.
In 2010, HIV claimed the lives of 1.8 million people in the world, yet that still leaves an estimated 34 million more to continue living with the disease; 17 million of those infected are women. According to the latest reports about Maternal Mortality, 287,000 women die each year from pregnancy or childbirth related complications. The latest WHO, UNFPA, UNICEF and World bank report on maternal mortality notes that "for countries with high HIV prevalence, HIV has become a leading cause of death during pregnancy and the postpartum period" and attributes 19,000 maternal deaths to HIV in 2010.
We have seen astonishing results through initiatives such as PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight Malaria, Tuberculosis and AIDS. In fact, today, an amazing 8 million people have access to anti-retro-viral (ARV) treatment. Access to these life-saving drugs not only keeps people alive, they can also radically reduce vertical transmission (from mother to child). Ramping up global investments has insured testing and counseling during antenatal visits and provision of treatment throughout pregnancy, delivery and post delivery. While the treatment for prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV has been available since 1994, still ninety percent of the 2.5 million children living with HIV became infected during childbirth. The call to action right now is this: "The beginning of the end of AIDS" by 2015, which means getting PMTCT down to zero new cases.
We stand behind this goal and will do whatever we can to help realize it. But we also believe that if we can make this kind of progress with HIV, a complex infectious disease, then why can't we insure that more girls and women who do not have HIV survive childbirth? That's why EMC has joined Saving Mothers Giving Life (SMGL) along with the U.S. State Department, Merck for Mothers, the Norwegian Government and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Saving Mothers, Giving Life is intended to leverage the significant investments made to fight HIV/AIDS in order to also extend services to reduce maternal deaths starting in four districts each in two key PEPFAR countries, Uganda and Zambia.
The fight against HIV/AIDS is by no means over, but we are at the tipping point where we can look back and see that something once unthinkable IS possible and within reach. This is success: 8 million people on treatment up from just hundreds of thousands, and a serious conversation about an end to this devastating disease.
Let's continue to dream big. Together, we can make a difference.
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