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Infection Rates Down, Drug Access Up and Optimism High Before AIDS Conference

July 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Some 25,000 scientists, political leaders, and advocates are expected to gather in Washington, D.C., next week for the world's largest AIDS meeting. Gwen Ifill talks with UNAIDS' Michel Sidibe about the successes and continuing challenges to treat and prevent HIV and AIDS.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, two takes on AIDS today here and around the world.

We begin with a global progress report more than three decades after the first cases were reported.

Gwen Ifill has that.

GWEN IFILL: When researchers, political leaders and advocates gather in Washington next week for the world’s largest AIDS meeting, there will be something new on the agenda: optimism.

AIDS deaths have declined. The rate of new infections among children is falling, and more than eight million people in poor and middle-income countries are receiving crucial lifesaving drugs.

But the global picture remains grim. Worldwide, more than 34 million people have HIV, 23 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, 1.7 million people died from the disease. And millions still can’t get the drugs they need.

Michel Sidibe is the director of UNAIDS, which just issued the latest report on all this. And he joins me now.

Thank you for joining us.

MICHEL SIDIBE, UNAIDS: Thank you very much.

GWEN IFILL: The new numbers, do they show that we’re turning the tide in this crisis?

MICHEL SIDIBE: You know, I think we are breaking the backbone of this epidemic.

It is the first time that we can say that we have 56 countries worldwide who have stabilized, even reduced significantly the number of new infection. We are seeing also a prevention revolution working. Young people are taking the responsibility, changing their behavior.

And we’re seeing a reduction by almost 25 percent amongst those young people, even 50 percent in a country like South Africa, which is just showing that we are going to win if we remain committed to the mobilization of the resources to find this epidemic.

GWEN IFILL: What do we think is behind this? Is it a change, as you said, in behavior, young people realizing or others realizing what they should and shouldn’t do? Or is it access to medication, access to care?

MICHEL SIDIBE: I think it’s many factors.

First of all, let me say that the compassion and the mobilization of American taxpayers have been producing results. You have been able to put resources out there when people were not thinking at all that we could even put people on treatment. Ten years ago, it was $15,000 per person per year.

But because you believed that we need to save lives and you did it, today, we’re seeing the result. But, also, we are seeing President Obama’s full commitment to make sure that we can come with a new narrative, which is about sharing responsibility, making sure that we sustain our gain, and that is also starting to pay off.

GWEN IFILL: But that’s what the U.S. is doing to help. What about what these nations, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, are willing to do for themselves? Ten years ago, Thabo Mbeki from South Africa wouldn’t even admit that the HIV virus caused AIDS. Is that changing?

MICHEL SIDIBE: That changed.

I think UNAIDS is trying to work with African countries. Today, we can say that we have almost 33 countries in Africa, 33 countries, who have been able to increase their domestic investment by 50 percent during the last five years. South Africa is a very good example, just last year put $2 billion to fight HIV in South Africa.

We would have never believed that one. And, today, we are seeing that happening also in emerging nations. We have been working with China, India, Brazil, Russia. All of those countries today, instead of waiting for resources coming from Global Fund, are paying for their AIDS response. This is the change.

GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you a little bit more about something other than money, which is this question.

For a long time, there was a stigma against the people who disproportionately suffer from HIV, which is to say drug abusers and homosexuals and prostitutes and people who no self-respecting African leader wanted to stand on a stage with. Has that changed?

MICHEL SIDIBE: I think what is very frustrating me is not just in Africa. In Russia, in Central Asia, in different parts of the world, we are seeing, unfortunately, that universal access for the most at-risk population, the men who are having sex with men, people who inject the drugs or a sex worker, are denied from their access to services.

They have to hide themselves. They have to go underground, and which is not helping us. You can imagine, for example, in the last 10 years, we had almost 250 percent increase on new infection in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

GWEN IFILL: And have costs dropped also? When you say access and you say that many countries have stepped up and helped with this, has it become less expensive now to get that care?

MICHEL SIDIBE: Yes.

Ten years ago, like I was saying, we’re talking about almost $15,000 per person per year. Today, we are talking about less than $100 per person per year. And that changed completely the dynamic of the response. Today, we are having eight million people on treatment because we have been able also to create this  (INAUDIBLE) which helps us to deal with trade issues, but also to deal with services, because of providing services.

GWEN IFILL: As the head of UNAIDS, you can look back at what’s happened in the last 10 years. Look forward for a moment to what should be happening, what you would like to see occur in the next 10 years.

MICHEL SIDIBE: I think, for me, it’s very clear. It’s a vision of three zero. Zero new infections, zero death due to HIV, and zero discrimination. Because, when we discriminate, it’s our decision to discriminate.

You know, I personally believe that this zero-zero is about social justice. It’s about redistribution of opportunities. It’s about making sure that what we are building is inclusive. And I believe that is the only way we can have stability in many parts of the world. And it can be an answer, Gwen, for really reforming the global health response.

GWEN IFILL: Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, thank you so much for joining us.

MICHEL SIDIBE: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.