Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Unprecedented Hope in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Michael J. Gerson


July 20, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

With more than 25,000 delegates from around the world arriving in Washington for the International AIDS Conference, it is a good time to assess how far we’ve come on one of the great humanitarian challenges of our time—and where we might be headed.

Less than a decade ago, most of sub-Saharan Africa was living in the shadow of death.  Large portions of the population were infected with HIV with little or no hope of treatment. These were not only the very poor, but teachers, doctors, nurses, civil servants and others who make organized society possible. In the capital of Zambia, for example, there were traffic jams during much of the day due to constant funeral processions. In 2003—when President George W. Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR—there were 50,000 people receiving AIDS treatment in sub-Saharan Africa.  According to recently released figures, there are now more than 6 million, due to the efforts of PEPFAR, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis and local governments.

A considerable challenge remains: About 44 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa who need treatment still lack it. But getting the treatment percentage above 50 percent is an achievement beyond expectation and beyond precedent. And it says some good things about America. This great national effort has been genuinely bipartisan, the work of a Republican president, jointed by congressional leaders of both parties and continued by a Democratic president. America has earned goodwill in Africa—even in the smallest villages I’ve visited. People know what PEPFAR means.  It is perhaps the greatest American work of mercy since the Marshall Plan.

But the fight against AIDS is reaching a critical moment. There is now a realistic scientific prospect—not only of providing broader treatment, but of dramatically reducing new infections.

Recent studies have demonstrated the efficacy of a series of interventions. Male circumcision can reduce transmission by more than 50 percent.  Early treatment can reduce viral loads to almost undetectable levels, which also makes the disease harder to pass long.  And the transmission of HIV from mother to child can be prevented in nearly all cases with a simple pill.

When these and other forms of prevention are combined and focused in the most affected groups, in the most affected places, scientists project a reduction in transmission of up to 60 percent. At that point, the number of new infections would drop lower than the number of new people put on treatment, which would be a turning point in this struggle.  We are on the verge of something exciting: the beginning of the end of the AIDS pandemic.   

Some of us have been involved in the fight against AIDS for many years.  And this prospect is deeply encouraging.  But achieving it will require the continued commitment of our government, supported and reinforced by citizens who believe that human dignity is a cause worth fighting for. 

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”