Thirty years ago today we were digesting the first official report on the emergence of Aids, by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Little did we know then that this deadly affliction of the immune system was not confined to clusters of gay men on the west coast of America. But a sense of detachment did not last long. The HIV virus soon broke through gender, social and age barriers. The search for a vaccine and a cure has driven medical science ever since.
Aids or related causes have killed about 30 million people and nearly 35 million are infected with HIV. We may not yet have either a vaccine or a cure, but countless millions remain alive today thanks to education and safe-sex practices that prevent infection, or advances in early drug treatment of HIV-positive people that delays the onset of Aids. The United Nations reports a 25 per cent decline in new HIV infections and a progressive fall in Aids-related deaths in the last decade.
More importantly, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even without a vaccine. A new study by the UN Programme on HIV/Aids has indicated that early treatment of people with HIV can reduce the risk of transmission by 96 per cent. If that is borne out, the drugs are on the threshold of achieving much of what a vaccine would. The agency says the challenge now is to obtain the increased funding needed to expand access to drugs and combat social and cultural factors that stigmatise the disease and inhibit the delivery of treatment.
So it is a worry that a sustained rise in international resources from 2001 to 2009 was reversed last year. UNAids believes an investment of at least US$22 billion by 2015 would stop 12 million new HIV infections and 7.4 million Aids-related deaths by 2020. That is US$6 billion more than is available today - a drop in the bucket of the future social and economic costs of the Aids epidemic if it is not found. It is therefore a good humanitarian investment for rich nations that otherwise will be asked to dig deeper later if they keep their hands in their pockets now.