I wonder what would happen if the daily barrage of negative, misleading political campaign ads were replaced just for a day by a one-minute clip from the opening ceremony of the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., last week.
This replacement ad would feature a beautiful, regal woman from Nigeria sharing a heartfelt and poignant ‘thank you’ to the American people for literally saving her life by providing access to antiretroviral drugs — medicine that creates a modern-day “Lazarus effect” in people whose immune systems have been ravaged by AIDS — and also ensures that her daughter was born HIV-free. I wish every member of Congress could have heard these words, a ‘thank you’ that echoes what many nations in sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing as they work to turn the tide of this deadly disease.
This one mother and child from Nigeria are only a snapshot of the millions of lives that have been transformed by American generosity and leadership through life-saving investments in the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria — which have increased the number of Africans on treatment from a shameful 50,000 in 2002 to more than 4 million today.
At the conference, Sec. Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. goal to end mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015 and, like other PEPFAR grantees, World Vision is focused on helping achieve that goal.
The remarkable achievements highlighted at last week’s conference are a stunning sea of change, but only a fraction of Americans are aware what has been achieved in their name and with their tax dollars. America’s leadership in addressing the global epidemic is a testament to the power of bipartisan cooperation. Despite the vitriol of day-to-day partisan politics, this initiative provides hope that Congress can still transcend our broken political dialogue.
Every other year, the International AIDS Conference offers a whirlwind display of scientific updates and presentations, along with spirited protests, and myriad political speeches and promises. While more must be done to reduce the 50,000 new infections each year in the U.S., progress in many other parts of the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, has been stunning.
With 22 countries worldwide reducing the number of new infections by more than 26 percent since the peak of the epidemic, this year’s conference was different in that we gathered with the very real prospect of ending AIDS in our lifetime. I was reminded that the world stands at a crossroads characterized by both hope and peril. For the first time, we possess the tools, evidence, and knowledge to achieve an AIDS-free generation, yet “AIDS fatigue” in the public consciousness and financial pressures threaten to derail the realization of this bold and finally achievable goal.
So what will it take to make this dream a reality in the United States and around the world? Conference leaders presented three key obstacles in this current fight:
- Reducing new infections will require reaching the most marginalized populations, including adolescent girls and pregnant mothers in sub-Saharan Africa. Reaching any compromised group will require breaking out of comfort zones and overcoming the prejudices and barriers that often prevent these populations from getting the care they need.
- In many countries with a high percentage of the population living with HIV or AIDS, treatment programs are still almost entirely dependent on donor funding. Striking the right balance between increasing national government investment and the ongoing need for donor investments will be critical.
- Behavior change remains the thorniest issue in addressing HIV and AIDS, particularly in relation to delaying sexual activity, encouraging fidelity, and promoting responsible sexual behavior. What is clear is that while new biomedical tools have put an AIDS-free generation within reach, they will not be sustainable without behavior change. The faith community is uniquely positioned to address behavior change but, to be effective, we must approach it in a way that doesn’t carry judgment and condemnation.
The conference left me more convinced that if we start seeing this virus through the same lens as God, the acronym HIV takes on another meaning of Healing the International Village. I believe Christ would extend unconditional love and care to people living with HIV, regardless of how they contracted the virus.
However, it is challenging for the church to discuss the issues that drive risk and vulnerability, particularly when they intersect with sexual issues that most churches find difficult to address. To overcome these obstacles and achieve an AIDS-free generation, we need to champion justice, heal brokenness, and restore healthier relationships between the AIDS community and the Christian church in the U.S. and around the world. This is an opportunity and responsibility we have to save lives, just as we as Americans did for that mother and child from Nigeria.
As we enter another two-year period before the next conference, the Christian community must wrestle with three pertinent and pressing questions:
- How do we defend more traditional beliefs around the sanctity of marriage without exacerbating stigma?
- How do we reach the most marginalized people with love and compassion?
- How can the church better mobilize its substantial influence and constituency in order to hold governments accountable to their promises and ensure that political will in this fight is sustained?
Adam Taylor is Vice President of Advocacy & Government Relations for World Vision U.S.
HIV / AIDS icon illustration, Cienpies Design / Shutterstock.com