When the news of the HIV-free baby hit the newswires last week, I felt delighted, but not entirely surprised.
As someone who has many friends living with HIV, the tale was not radically new. The child was born positive, and was administered antiretroviral medication that her mother should have been given all along. Once administered these meds, her viral load for HIV plummeted -- something that happens for HIV patients, world-wide, every single day. It went so low that it became undetectable, rendering the child nearly non-transmissible -- again, something that already happens on a regular basis.
Of course, this child's case goes one crucial step further - HIV is no longer detected at all in the child's body, even after lapses in treatment.
However this story still felt underwhelming to me.
But then, I fielded a very unexpected remark last week.
I was meeting with a friend - a well-educated, well-traveled person - who knew about my involvement in the field of HIV/AIDS and asked me what I thought about the news.
"It's wonderful to have more attention on the issue," I remarked. "Especially good to show how much we're struggling in our own country for access to health care."
I was referencing the baby's mother, a young woman in rural Mississippi, who had never accessed pre-natal care and thus never received the medication that would have prevented her child from being infected in the first place.
"Wait - that baby was American?" she said, in disbelief, "I assumed it must have been in Africa."
And suddenly I realized what was so shocking about the HIV free baby after all.
It is not the fact that, or the method by which, the baby became HIV-free. Administration of antiretroviral drugs to make a viral load undetectable? This is already the case for millions of people globally.
What is most shocking about the exceptional HIV-free baby is that so few people realize the progress we have achieved to date in paving the path to an AIDS-free world. And if we cannot acknowledge the progress we have already achieved, we risk being blind to situations in which these gifts are about to be taken away from us.
What is most shocking is that in a world where HIV can be managed as a chronic illness, a young woman in Mississippi endures her entire pregnancy without having her HIV treated. What is most shocking is that in a world where no one ever should die of AIDS, because of the availability of HIV treatment, millions of people still do not have reliable access to these medications, because the drugs are not being fully and reliably funded.
Readers who were touched to hear about a baby becoming HIV-free should feel equally furious that here in America, recent and upcoming sequestration cuts are chopping away the money that would otherwise save these mothers, like the HIV-free baby's mother, who have no access to primary care, antenatal care, or HIV care.
If you were excited and inspired to think about an HIV-free infant, you should be just as concerned that lifesaving resources like the Global Fund are at risk of not being replenished. This means we risk losing the incredible progress we have made abroad as well.
This week I embarked on an international journey with a team of filmmakers called The Jubilee Project. We are filming for their upcoming documentary film "EndGame: The End of AIDS" which will help redefine the AIDS narrative on a global level. We will be capturing the stories of people who have been living with HIV for years, in great health, because of the availability of antiretorival medications like those given to the HIV-free baby. These are the same people whose lives are now literally being put at risk if the funding that supplies their medication gets cut off in the coming years.
As you will see in the film, every voice matters in the big picture of ending AIDS. That means you, too!
So for now, the next time someone asks you if you heard about the HIV-free baby, let them know the truth: an HIV-free baby isn't the biggest news. The biggest deal is that we already have the power to create an AIDS-free world. But it's going to require your voice - truly, a global choir of voices in solidarity to demand access to health care for all - to make this potential into a reality.
**To become part of the 'End to AIDS' right away, get involved directly with any of the organizations leading this movement, including: Health GAP, The Student Global AIDS Campaign, Act V, FACE AIDS , and AIDS Free World. Please leave comments below to notify readers of other organizations!