Chronicling the Turning Tide in the Global HIV/AIDS Response

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A view of the U.S. Global HIV/AIDS Leadership Exhibition is on display in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.
A view of the U.S. Global HIV/AIDS Leadership Exhibition on display in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.

Chronicling the Turning Tide in the Global HIV/AIDS Response

Thirty-eight years ago, this month, the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the first reported cases of what would later become known as AIDS. In the years that followed, millions of AIDS-related deaths devastated communities both in the United States and around the world as the disease reached epidemic proportions.

As the epidemic exploded globally, particularly across Sub-Saharan Africa, the U.S. government responded with the establishment of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. Over the last 16 years, with remarkable bipartisan support across nine U.S. congresses and three presidential administrations – and through the American people’s tremendous generosity – PEPFAR has saved more than 17 million lives. Working together with our partners, we have also prevented millions of HIV infections and accelerated progress toward controlling the HIV/AIDS epidemic – community by community, country by country.

As we look back on how far we have come, it is fitting that, this week, the U.S. Global HIV/AIDS Leadership Exhibition is on display in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. We launched this traveling, interactive, exhibition at the 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa to help share the historic political, scientific, and social milestones along our collective journey to move the HIV/AIDS pandemic from crisis toward control.

When PEPFAR was started, an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence in many countries, and entire families and communities were falling ill. Global health and development gains were being lost. In the hardest-hit regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, infant mortality doubled, child mortality tripled, and life expectancy dropped by 20 years.

Sixteen years ago, only 50,000 people in Africa were on lifesaving HIV treatment. As of Sept. 2018, PEPFAR supports treatment for more than 14.6 million people globally. We have enabled more than 2.4 million babies to be born HIV free to HIV-positive mothers who have the treatment they need to stay healthy. And we provide assistance to more than 6.8 million orphans, vulnerable children, and their caregivers. 

Today, for the first time in modern history, we have the opportunity to control a pandemic without a vaccine or a cure, and lay the groundwork to eventually eliminate HIV once they are discovered. We are extremely proud of how far we have come together, and it is important that we share this story.

Under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump, PEPFAR continues to demonstrate its commitment to helping reach the Sustainable Development Goal target of ending AIDS as a public health threat around the world. This commitment is evident in the administration’s PEPFAR Strategy for Accelerating HIV/ AIDS Epidemic Control (2017-2020), the PEPFAR Extension Act of 2018, and the latest PEPFAR Strategy Progress Report released by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.

Despite our progress, the global HIV/AIDS response still today demands all of our efforts and critical work remains. We hope the American visitors that walk the halls of the Capitol this week can be proud of the fruit their generosity has borne, and that the foreign visitors too, are proud of this life-saving work that has likely benefited many of their home communities.

Together, we have proven what is possible through compassionate, cost-effectiveness, accountable, and transparent American foreign assistance – and also the power of our partnerships with so many around the globe. But we are not finished. So, every day, we push ahead, honoring the memory of the millions who we have lost and fighting for those who are still with us and in need of support.

About the Author: Ambassador-at-Large, Deborah L. Birx, M.D., is the Coordinator of the United States Government Activities to Combat HIV/AIDS and U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.