Today is World AIDS Day and this year’s theme is getting to zero. Zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS related deaths, and zero discrimination. Last week UNAIDS announced that new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths have fallen to the lowest levels since the peak of the epidemic in 1997. Almost half of those needing treatment for HIV in low and middle income countries are now receiving it. And HIV treatment is now being heralded as an important element in the prevention toolkit, given that it has been shown to reduce the risk of a person living with HIV passing on the virus to an uninfected partner, in some settings by up to 96%. In the words of UNAIDS, 2011 has been a “game changing year for the AIDS response”.
In this context, and on behalf of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, we asked the British public what they think of the problem of HIV in developing countries today. Four in ten think it has stayed the same over the last few years (39%) and a third think it has got worse (34%). People are slightly more optimistic about the future though, with 26% saying it will get better in the next few years, compared with 18% who say it has got better over the last few years.
One of the major focuses of the HIV prevention effort is the prevention of mother to child transmission during pregnancy and childbirth. In 2010, nearly half of all pregnant women living with HIV accessed treatment to enable this. Yet only two-fifths of the British public are aware there are effective ways of preventing transmission of HIV from mother to child (41%) and almost half think there are not (47%).
There is, however, strong support that HIV positive women should have the right to have children born free of HIV (76% of those polled agree with this) and the majority of people are keen for the UK government to give aid to help women in developing countries do so (60%). Furthermore, three-quarters of the public think it is important for the UK government to maintain overall spending on HIV programmes overseas (73%). In his Autumn Statement on Tuesday, the Chancellor announced that the government will maintain its commitments on international development spending.
The current period of economic uncertainty does present challenges though. We know from our other polling that overseas aid is rarely seen as a top priority for the British public. Ten days ago, one of the largest channels of international financing to fight HIV, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria, faced the realities of this when it essentially cancelled its next round of grants due to resource constraints.
Economic gloom and fiscal priorities could well prolong the aim of “getting to zero”. But, at a time when significant progress in the fight against HIV has been made, the global health community should not be deterred.