WASHINGTON — In an ambitious road map for slashing the global spread of AIDS, the Obama administration says treating people sooner and rapidly expanding other proven tools could help even the hardest-hit countries begin turning the tide of the epidemic over the next three to five years.
"An AIDS-free generation is not just a rallying cry — it is a goal that is within our reach," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who ordered the blueprint, said in the report.
"Make no mistake about it, HIV may well be with us into the future but the disease that it causes need not be," she said at the State Department Thursday.
President Barack Obama echoed that promise.
"We stand at a tipping point in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and working together, we can realize our historic opportunity to bring that fight to an end," Obama said in a proclamation to mark World AIDS Day on Saturday.
Some 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and despite a decline in new infections in the past decade, 2.5 million people were infected last year.
Given those staggering figures, what does an AIDS-free generation mean? That virtually no babies are born infected, young people have a much lower risk than today of becoming infected, and that people who already have HIV would receive life-saving treatment.
That last step is key: Treating people early in their infection, before they get sick, not only helps them survive but also dramatically cuts the chances they'll infect others. Yet only about 8 million HIV patients in developing countries are getting treatment. The United Nations aims to have 15 million treated by 2015.
Other important steps include: treating more pregnant women, and keeping them on treatment after their babies are born; increasing male circumcision to lower men's risk of heterosexual infection; increasing access to both male and female condoms; and more HIV testing.
The world spent $16.8 billion fighting AIDS in poor countries last year. The U.S. government is the leading donor, spending about $5.6 billion.
Thursday's report from PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, outlines how progress could continue at current spending levels — something far from certain as Congress and Obama struggle to avert looming budget cuts at year's end — or how faster progress is possible with stepped-up commitments from hard-hit countries themselves.