Turn the tide against AIDS

When I met 16-year-old Daniel at an orphanage called Nyumbani (Swahili for “home”) for children with HIV/AIDS in Nairobi, Kenya last month, I was reminded that there is progress being made in the HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis epidemic. There is hope.

Daniel is one of the millions of children impacted by HIV and TB around the world. The close link between these two diseases is understandable, because when HIV begins to wreck havoc on the immune system, the opportunistic tuberculosis bacteria often attacks the body, especially in communities where TB is as common as our respiratory colds.

Daniel lost his parents when he was 10 years old. He has faced physical and emotional battles over the years, yet has received what any mother or father would want for their child: medicine, support, and love. These three ingredients to HIV and TB treatment have been given to Daniel through compassionate “mothers and fathers” who recognized that helping one child is significant.

One of Daniel’s “mothers” who cared for him has moved to south Everett. Christine Oyaro cared for Daniel during some of the most difficult stages of his TB treatment while she lived in Kenya. It has been two years since Christine has seen a picture of Daniel.

“To see that Daniel is thriving and moving into young adulthood is a blessing, one which could not have happened without the levels of care he has received and continues to receive,” she said.

World AIDS Day

Several events are planned Thursday in Snohomish County. All begin at the Snohomish Health District, 3020 Rucker Ave., Everett.

• A Community Health Fair featuring information tables and free and low-cost HIV testing runs from 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

• A Memorial Walk begins at 6:30 p.m. Meet at the front doors of the Snohomish Health District building for a three-block walk to the AIDS Memorial on the Snohomish County Campus.

• A World AIDS Day Presentation begins at 7 p.m. in the Snohomish Health District Atrium. Speakers include Zambian HIV/TB activist Michael Gwaba and Hayden M. Bixby, international program coordinator for Cura Orphanage in Kenya. A panel discussion will take place about facing HIV/AIDS in Snohomish County, and a candle-lighting ceremony will follow.

The end of AIDS is possible

Each Dec. 1, the global community commemorates World AIDS Day by bringing attention to the global epidemic that still infects 2.7 million more people every year, and claims 2 million lives annually. These are sobering numbers, but this year World AIDS Day comes after a string of stunning scientific advances that has fundamentally altered the possibilities in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

The end of the AIDS epidemic is within our grasp.

AIDS treatment is prevention

In May, U.S. researchers announced the results of a study that proved conclusively what AIDS researchers had long suspected: Treating HIV-positive people with antiretroviral therapy (ART) can reduce the risk that they will transmit the virus to their uninfected partners.

By suppressing the virus, AIDS drugs not only keep people living with HIV/AIDS healthy and alive, they can prevent the virus from being passed on to others. In fact, the study found that when treatment was initiated early in the progression of the disease (as opposed to waiting for the patients to become sick), there was a 96 percent reduction in the risk of transmission.

The implications of the study for the future of HIV/AIDS are momentous. We now know that treatment is prevention. When used in combination with other prevention strategies, including the prevention of transmission from pregnant mothers to their children, we can turn the tide against HIV/AIDS.

Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS

Tuberculosis, which preys on weakened immune systems, is the leading killer of people with HIV/AIDS. New research by experts at the World Health Organization estimated that with a concerted effort using a combination of strategies to fight TB-HIV co-infection, we can save an additional 1 million lives by 2015.

The recent AIDS study mentioned earlier also demonstrated that early AIDS treatment not only reduces transmission of HIV, it can also protect HIV-positive people from opportunistic infections like TB. The study found that early AIDS treatment reduced the occurrence of TB infection by 84 percent.

By starting AIDS treatment earlier, improving the quality and access of TB services, and ensuring people living with HIV/AIDS are tested for TB (and vice versa), we can reduce TB-related AIDS deaths by 80 percent by 2015. That would prevent an additional 1 million deaths.

Investing to end the epidemic

The implementation of these life-saving strategies will require new financial resources. Recent economic modeling led by researchers at UNAIDS shows that investing more now will actually reduce the cost of the AIDS response in the long run. Hasn’t prevention always been less expensive than treatment?

Increasing global spending by an additional $5 billion per year by 2015 would not only save lives and prevent new infections, it would make such a dent in the epidemic that the total cost of fighting AIDS would start to fall.

Translating evidence into action

We can now begin to imagine a world without orphanages for children affected by HIV. But imagination isn’t enough. Only true commitment and investment into a dream can make the dream attainable.

Despite this emerging opportunity, global AIDS spending fell in 2010 for the first time in a decade. It is in this context of bold new evidence and wavering political commitment that we approach World AIDS Day 2011.

World AIDS Day will be a critical moment to begin making the case to members of Congress and the White House that U.S. global AIDS policy must continue to follow the evidence.

In eight months, there will be a different type of “occupation” in Washington, D.C. The International AIDS Conference will attract tens of thousands of AIDS researchers, clinicians, activists and people living with the disease. Historically, this biannual conference has served as a key forum to generate global political momentum in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Christine, I and other RESULTS volunteers from Washington state will go to Washington, D.C., to show our solidarity to those affected by HIV/AIDS around the world.

After 30 years of such an intense and heartbreaking epidemic, the world now has the capacity to move to the final stages of this disease, which has ravaged developing countries and vulnerable communities across the globe. It is no longer a question of how we tackle the HIV/AIDS and TB epidemic, but a question of whether we will. Will we stand up, at the same time, to address the extreme poverty that has gripped so many communities as these diseases have advanced?

When I look at the picture of Daniel, I must believe we will.

About the author: Teresa Rugg lives in Snohomish and has 20 years of experience working in public health in the United States and Africa. Rugg is a volunteer group leader for Snohomish County RESULTS, a nonprofit committed to ending hunger and the worst aspects of poverty, and the project director of TB Photovoice. You can contact Rugg at tbphotovoice@frontier.com.

HIV/AIDS and TB organizations to support

Snohomish County has a deep connection with people affected by HIV/AIDS, locally and globally.

Numerous small nonprofits working with shoestring budgets, and individuals who have enormous hearts, have become part of the many layers of support that the world needs to confront HIV/AIDS and TB here in our own back yards and in communities that struggle to have their basic needs met.

Focus in Snohomish County:

Snohomish Health District

Snohomish County Gay Men’s Task Force

Evergreen AIDS Foundation

Pacific Treatment Alternatives

Focus on the global community:

RESULTS Educational Fund

TB Photovoice

Cura Orphanage

Nyumbani

True Vine Togo

Partners in Health

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