This week, world leaders are gathering at the United Nations to act on a groundbreaking goal: to make AIDS history. And while the goal is undoubtedly ambitious, it is achievable if we commit the political will and resources to make it happen.
The progress we have already made in the battle to contain AIDS is quite extraordinary. It is evidence of the irresistible power within the human family, when individuals, communities and countries work together to achieve common goals, to make the impossible, possible.
It was just 15 years ago, in 2001, that the United Nations convened the first High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS.
At the time, we faced a global nightmare that looked like it would be with us for generations. The horror was palpable. Lifesaving treatment was too expensive for many, and health care systems in many poor countries too weak. Infant mortality was tripling, life expectancy was plummeting, and families, communities, economies and even some countries were teetering on the brink of collapse. Years of hard-won development progress were being wiped out overnight.
Hope and opportunity were scarce, and much-needed action seemed frozen by fear, denial and stigma.
No one knew what to expect at that meeting. Even beginning to turn the tide on AIDS seemed out of reach, but that’s just what the world came together to do.
One-hundred-and-eighty-nine states ratified the U.N. Declaration of Commitment to Fight AIDS. The United States government enacted the $30 billion President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest global health initiative in history. Donors and partner governments created the Global Fund for AIDS, TB & Malaria, which has saved 17 million lives by supporting country-driven health care systems.
The results of the world’s commitment have been unprecedented. More than 15.86 million people living with HIV now have access to lifesaving treatment, new HIV infections have been cut by more than one-third for adults and nearly two-thirds for children, and AIDS deaths have dropped by more than 40%. All in all, 30 million new infections and 8 million deaths have been prevented by our work together. It’s hard to beat that kind of real world return on investment.
Moreover, AIDS investments have paid dividends many times over by positively impacting other development priorities like improving health care systems, preparing for other emerging health crises, reducing maternal and infant mortality, and promoting human rights, gender equality, civil society and democracy.
Now, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS has stated, we have the science, the tools and the solidarity to actually end AIDS by 2030.
But our sense of urgency has not subsided and more work lies ahead. Last year alone, over 2 million people became infected with HIV and another million died of AIDS. If we do not pick up our pace and simply continue HIV prevention and treatment services at their current level, our progress will slip backward and the epidemic could again explode. But if we leverage our current momentum and, over the next five years, accelerate our scale-up for the people, places and programs with the greatest impact, we can save millions more lives and billions of dollars.
The world leaders at the 2016 High Level Meeting on Ending AIDS this week have another historic opportunity — this time to pass a political declaration that translates our vision for fast-tracking the end of AIDS into a road map for concerted action. Making this happen will require bold leadership and shared responsibility from heads of state from the north and the south; ministers of health; program implementers; faith, business and foundation leaders; civil society and all the other partners that have helped bring us to this fragile tipping point.
This would surely include the LGBT organizations that some have been trying to keep out of this meeting. In our view, progress is made by bringing people together, not pushing them apart.
We urge leaders from around the globe to be actively engaged in the High Level Meeting and help secure a global compact that commits to: fast-tracking and front-loading investments over the next five years, setting ambitious but doable global prevention and treatment targets that keep us on track, and leaving no one behind by ensuring that human rights remain at the center of the AIDS response, especially among marginalized populations in challenging settings. This is not a time to coast or move on, but to focus and accelerate.
Those on the front lines of this epidemic and their allies around the world know exactly what we need to do and are well on the path to getting it done. But more will and wallet remain essential. Sadly, experience has too often left the African landscape littered with great ideas and good intentions that stopped short of accomplishing their goals. We cannot afford to let our fight against AIDS go down that road. We have come too far, we are too close to the end and there is far too much at stake.
We have the ability and opportunity to save lives and build AIDS-free futures. Let’s seize the day and make AIDS history.
Elton John is a recording artist and the founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town from 1986 to 1996, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his contribution to opposing apartheid. The views expressed are their own.