Hope for AIDS

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire says that there is some encouraging news from the AIDS front.

(Daulaire) The child on my lap was happy and robust. His smile was the smile of any three-year old secure in the knowledge of his mother’s love. The difference was that, four months ago, here in the heart of Africa, this child had nearly died of AIDS.

But here he was, brought by his mother for his monthly check-up at the Botswana national pediatric AIDS clinic. Both mother and child were on anti-retroviral drug therapy provided free of charge by their government. Both were in good health, well-nourished, and – just as important – in excellent spirits. When I spoke with his mother, it was obvious that something unexpected had entered her life: Hope.

Up until recently, hope was hard to find in the world’s poorest countries, even among those fighting hardest against AIDS. Two tremendous obstacles seemed to darken any hope for those already infected: the complexity and the cost of treatment.

State-of-the-art medicines for HIV/AIDS are custom combinations of drugs that must be taken on a rigorous schedule. For years, health providers and policy makers debated whether such intensive, long-term treatment could really be delivered in the developing world, citing problems from poor roads and ramshackle clinics to Africans’ supposed inability to tell time. And it’s true that incomplete treatment might not only harm the patient but could even help create drug-resistant strains of HIV.

Today, those who refused to despair are using hard-won experience to lead a global revolution in AIDS care and treatment.

Just before my visit to Botswana, I had spent time in a rural clinic in Haiti, where I had seen similar seeds of hope. There, in the most desperate country in the Western hemisphere, impoverished villagers are being treated for AIDS in communities that have never seen electricity or running water. What I saw was anything but hopeless: sick but willing people, sticking with their drug regimens, celebrating the chance to live.

A growing number of such programs around the world demonstrate that AIDS treatment in poor countries is both feasible and effective.

But how can this be affordable? Here in Vermont, AIDS drugs can cost more than $10,000 a year. People living with AIDS in the developing world – more than 40 million of them – can’t pay such prices on their incomes of one dollar a day.

Things are changing, from the rules allowing access to low-cost generic drugs for countries facing AIDS and other devastating diseases, to the growing commitments of real dollars from the U.S. and other rich countries.

Providing affordable care and treatment of AIDS, along with preventing further spread of the virus, is the only solution that makes moral, medical and economic sense, but it has taken too many years to get to this point.

AIDS isn’t hopeless. It’s just hard. We can do hard.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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