It's been 31 years since scientists named a devastating disease that would sweep the country and ravage nations around the world. Then, the mere mention of AIDS or HIV caused people to recoil in fear. Since then awareness campaigns have helped educate the public and tamp down fear so that World AIDS Day came and went last month with little notice. But an estimated 35.3 million people are living with AIDS worldwide, and there still is no cure. The world must remain committed to finding a cure and stopping the spread of the disease.
Representatives from around the world made financial commitments in Washington last month that would allow the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to continue to operate for the next three years. Based in Geneva, the Global Fund works to eradicate disease in more than 140 countries, many of them poor. The group, founded in 2002, touts significant strides in AIDS prevention efforts and in reducing tuberculosis and malaria infections. President Barack Obama committed the United States to contribute up to $5 billion, provided other nations chip in $10 billion. Twenty-five countries stepped up. Pledges also came in from the private sector, including from Microsoft's Bill Gates, who said he would donate $500 million. So far, projected contributions stand at $12 billion, a 30 percent increase from the pledges received in 2010. Separately, Obama announced plans to give $100 million to a National Institutes of Health project aimed at finding a cure.
This is what the United States, other countries and philanthropists should be doing. But it is not enough. Although infection rates in the United States are holding steady, the statistics still startle, with 1.1 million people living with HIV and AIDS in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Blacks continue to represent a disproportionate share of the infected, and young gay and bisexual men, ages 13-24, are among the fastest growing groups contracting the disease. Public health agencies, churches, civic and community groups, schools and, well, all of us, need to get busy. We must inform a generation whose ignorance of the disease leaves them ripe for infection. They don't remember Rock Hudson. Many weren't born when the movie Philadelphia premiered, and they don't remember when Magic Johnson retired from basketball the first time. Besides, Magic, apparently, lives quite well. Thank good antiretroviral drugs — now more broadly available — for that. In what is both a blessing and a curse, the destigmatization of the disease fosters lax attitudes too.
We must retell the story of AIDS, what it is, how it has killed more than 630,000 in the United States and how it still kills. We must shake a public jaded by awareness ribbons of every color. The world's health depends upon our ability to advance the message and the research, and now is not the time to let up.