I witnessed an inspirational sight last week in Johannesburg: A committed group of Africans from seven nations demanded - in the strongest terms possible - that their governments take action to end pediatric HIV/AIDS and fulfill their longstanding pledges.
These were not everyday citizens. The group - members of the Leadership Council of the Campaign to End Pediatric HIV/AIDS (CEPA) - includes prominent activist Graça Machel, as well as a former deputy national director of health for Mozambique and prominent doctors and researchers.
Just the site of these lay leaders taking a stand with their governments was extraordinary.
Would you take such a stand? You can next week. That's when global leaders will arrive in New York to attend the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals Summit. We need those national leaders to take action and to take a stand like the one taken by members of the CEPA Leadership Council.
Here's how you can make a difference. Over the next week, there will multiple events in several cities. In my home of Washington, D.C., for instance, there will be a rally on Friday in Farragut Square Park, near the White House, to "Stand Up" for the MDGs. Something similar is happening on Sunday in New York at Lincoln Center Plaza from Noon-4 p.m. The Global AIDS Alliance will be manning the MDG #6 booth, and I hope you will stop by to show your support.
You may be wondering what the MDG Summit is all about. Ten years ago, the entire membership of the United Nations adopted the Millennium Declaration: A commitment to end extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. This declaration established eight goals - the "MDGs" - each of which includes specific targets and indicators for measuring progress.
The sixth goal specifically addresses the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but all of the MDGs play an important role in halting and reversing the spread of this disease, which undermines progress toward the MDGs collectively.
It is now the eve of the 2010 MDG Summit. After a decade of working toward these goals, we are dangerously close to failing. There has been massive underfunding of supportive programs such as the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has translated into lives lost and opportunities wasted.
It is time for world leaders to move from talk to action. We need them to commit their fair share of financial resources to achieve the MDGs. And in the case of the United States, that means a pledge of $6 billion over three years to the Global Fund, which is an international financing institution designed to help meet MDG #6.
Yes, there is an economic crisis. That's what makes this pledge even more important now. We have seen time and again that every country, every crisis is interconnected. For instance, poverty and disease are inextricably linked, and this is especially true in the case of HIV/AIDS. Currently, more than 95% of all people with HIV/AIDS live in developing countries. People who are poor or lack education are often forced to make survival choices that put them at increased risk of HIV infection.
Conversely, the spread of HIV also increases the threat of poverty. At the household level, families face a loss of income as wage-earners become ill, and many are forced to sell assets to pay for HIV/AIDS medications and other health services, as well as funeral expenses. At the community level, the HIV/AIDS epidemic places additional strain on already over-burdened health care systems. Schools become dysfunctional as they lose their teachers and students to illness and death. And farmers become too sick to work, exacerbating food shortages.
Quite simply, eliminating extreme poverty will make people less vulnerable to HIV, and slowing the spread of HIV will help reduce poverty.
It is imperative that President Obama and other world leaders follow through on their promises when they attend the MDG Summit next week. It is imperative that they stand up, as did members of the CEPA Leadership Council, and as I hope you are able to do, too.
A 3-year pledge of $6 billion by the United States to the Global Fund would mean the difference between life and death for millions of people.
Dr. Paul Zeitz is executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance