Although the Ebola virus has claimed nearly 7,000 lives in nearly 10 months, it is not the first disease to emerge as a symptom of compromised public health systems in West Africa. Though the U.S. witnessed its first case of HIV in 1981, the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues 43 years later. Today, more than 35 million people worldwide live with the infection.
Today, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day. It is a day to recognize the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, to increase awareness about HIV transmission and prevention and to take action to combat the disease. Since its initial appearance in West Africa, AIDS has taken 39 million lives.
Launched in 2002, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been an important force against this epidemic. An international partnership, the Global Fund has financed programs for prevention and treatment in over 140 countries.
In 2003, to specifically target HIV/AIDS, President George W. Bush created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. With strong bipartisan support in Congress, PEPFAR has become the largest global health initiative dedicated to a single disease. PEPFAR’s comprehensive programs have proven exceptionally effective. Last year alone, PEPFAR and the Global Fund funded life-saving treatment for 6.7 million HIV-positive patients. In addition, PEPFAR has reduced mother-to-child transmissions and has provided counseling and testing to millions.
Despite these organizations’ efforts, 15 million HIV/AIDS victims still do not have access to treatment. Given PEPFAR’s progress, it is disappointing that less than a 100th of a percentage of the U.S. budget is allocated to global AIDS funding.
However, instead of increasing funding for these programs in the proposed budget for the 2015 fiscal year, the President has cut $300 million originally allocated to the Global Fund. Legislators are still debating where to invest these funds.
This cut is enough to delay the treatment of one million AIDS patients
To fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic and extend treatment to the one million out of 15 million still in need of treatment, the $300 million should be allocated towards PEPFAR.
While increasing the efficacy of and access to HIV/AIDS treatment and care programs, PEPFAR has recognized the importance of sustainable health solutions and national governance and ownership in fighting HIV/AIDS. As a result, scaled-up HIV/AIDS programs have contributed to public health systems without diverting investments from other essential public health programs.
To recognize the challenge to decrease AIDS treatment gaps, the Yale Global Health and AIDS Coalition has partnered with the Yale chapter of Partners in Health | Engage to host several Global AIDS Day awareness events. On Cross Campus today, 750 flags — each representing 20,000 people with AIDS — have been planted to symbolize the 15 million AIDS victims who still do not have access to treatment. I hope that students will walk through Cross Campus to show their support for increasing treatment access and participate in the World AIDS Day photo campaign. And this evening, I also invite students to attend a candlelight vigil by the Women’s Table to commemorate the deaths of 39 million AIDS victims since the start of the epidemic.
Most importantly, beyond recognizing the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Yale students must take action. Students should call on our federal representatives — Sen. Chris Murphy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. Rosa DeLauro — to sustain U.S investment in Global AIDS programs in the 2015 fiscal year. Encouraging our officials to invest the $300 million allocated to Global AIDS programs in PEPFAR this coming year will both combat the HIV epidemic and strengthen health systems abroad.
The first step in preventing the next AIDS or Ebola epidemic is giving health care providers in low- and middle-income countries the resources they need to stifle an outbreak. Beyond emergency response efforts to these epidemics, the international community must invest steadily in programs that strengthen long-term public health capacity. Investment in the PEPFAR program not only combats the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but also promises to increase health care capacity to prevent outbreaks before they spread.
Sarah Merchant is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. She is a member of the Yale chapter of Partners in Health | Engage. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.