ADDIS ABABA — In just 15 years, the world has gained an upper hand in its fight against the once seemingly unbeatable epidemic of HIV/AIDS, reversing the spread and now aiming to put the virus, which has killed 25 million people since 2000, to its grave by 2030.
Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS which leads the global fight, hailed the worldwide collaboration a true story as his agency published a flagship report detailed the process and experiences learnt from the past 15 years since the UN set reversing the spread of HIV/ AIDS a target of the Millennium Development Goal.
According to the report, between 2000 and 2014, new HIV infections dropped from 3.1 million to 2 million, a reduction of 35 percent and AIDS-related deaths also dropped by 41 percent. More than 15 million people, or 40 percent of the people living with HIV/AIDS in the world, are on life-saving anti-retroviral treatment.
Eighty-three countries, home to 83 percent of all people living with HIV, have halted or reversed their epidemics, including India, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Turning to China, where roughly 497,000 people live with HIV/ AIDS, Sidibe said in an interview after he attended the launch ceremony held on the sidelines of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia that “China has been one of our success stories during this past 15 years.”
He cited examples of how the government and society had changed from avoiding the high-risk groups towards actively working with them to curb the virus’s spread. Until 2001, homosexuality had been categorized as a psychiatrical disorder and intravenous drug users lived completely underground.
“I remember in those days, there was zero tolerance for people who were injecting drugs, sex workers, men having sex with men. And that was the main areas where we are having a growing infection. Today, China has completely changed the legislation in terms of fighting HIV/AIDS and has one of the largest programs helping drug users to have access to methadone,” Sidibe said.
The UNAIDS credited China’s methadone replacement programme as one of the global milestones in fighting HIV/AIDS in the past 15 years.
In 2004, China launches eight methadone maintenance treatment clinics to help drug users change the habit of injecting drugs by sharing needles to orally taking methadone. The programme managed to expand across the country. By December 2014, there were more than 750 clinics in China, treating 200,000 drug users.
As a result, newly diagnosed cases due to drug use in China fell from 43.9 percent in 2003 to 7.7 percent in 2013. And the rate of new HIV infections dropped by 90 percent among the people in the programme.
“That is a success story as China reduces the infection to almost zero among drug users staying on methadone programme. China will probably be able to eliminate the transmission from mother-to- child, which is another very important achievement,” Sidibe said.
“China will be among the first countries in Asia to be able to control the epidemic and end it before 2025, ahead of the global target of 2030,” Sidibe added.
At the launch of the report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said if the Millennium Development Goals were about halting and reversing the AIDS epidemic, the Sustainable Development Goals, which world leaders will be setting this year, are about ending the epidemic by 2030.
Sidibe said if the world frontload investments, increasing the annual input from 22 billion to 32 billion U.S. dollars and fast- track the efforts over the next five years, the AIDS epidemic will end by 2030.
“I am convinced that we are going to control the epidemic. It will not be a public health threat anymore because innovation, research, good-will of people,” Sidibe told Xinhua. “I am not saying that we will not have any case of HIV but their life expectancy will be the same as others and they will be able to live positively, continue to work, and not have children born with the virus.”
According to UNAIDS, life expectancy of a person living with HIV/AIDS has risen from 36 in 2001 to 55 in 2014.
The UNAIDS chief also encouraged Africa to build new partnerships with emerging nations particularly China for manufacturing drugs locally and for knowledge transfer especially at the community level in Africa.
He said as only two percent of the drugs consumed in Africa are produced locally, the costs of drugs can be brought down with partnering China for finance, research and development.
“And China can also be transferring their knowledge on ‘bare- foot doctors’ to Africa because what we need is to invest on millions of community workers to be able to reach communities with knowledge so they can stop emerging epidemic,” Sidibe said.
“This is not just about AIDS,” Sidibe said. “Look at the response to Ebola outbreak in West Africa. China is in the frontline but it will be good to train a lot of people in countries like Sierra Leon, so on community level they can be able to stop the diseases.”