AIDS still a crisis despite new advances

“The beginning of the end of the AIDS epidemic” is a phrase that resonated throughout the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., this summer, and for good reason. Promising signs that prevention is within our reach are fueling global optimism.

While there have been a number of medical breakthroughs recently, and there also is very exciting news about medically based prevention strategies, does it really mean an end to AIDS?

Unfortunately, it does not. “The beginning of the end of the AIDS epidemic” is not the end of AIDS. It is the beginning of the end of the epidemic. To medical researchers and epidemiologists, that means slowing the rate of new infections enough that the virus no longer reaches a critical reproductive mass that defines an epidemic.

We could do this if nearly all people living with HIV/AIDS were able to reduce their viral loads to undetectable levels by maintaining their drug regimens. This, combined with a daily drug regimen for people most at risk of the disease, does mean the number of new infections would plummet — which would be a very good thing.

But it does not mean we have a cure.

People who have battled the disease for a decade or more — those who have experienced the permanent and debilitating side effects of the illness or its treatments — will not suddenly fully recover and re-enter the workforce. Thousands disabled by HIV/AIDS will still need financial assistance from the AIDS Emergency Fund, meals from Project Open Hand and specialized (and expensive) medical care.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV. By the end of 2010, there were 15,861 people living with the illness in San Francisco alone.

These people are already marginalized. The 2,300 clients served each year by the AIDS Emergency Fund are nearly invisible on the streets of San Francisco or in the life of the community.

We may be on the verge of breaking the cycle of new infections, but if the average citizen understands that news to mean “the end of AIDS,” it will push people living with the disease further off the radar of compassion and generosity.

The end of the epidemic is not the end. Those living with HIV and AIDS need our continued support, and because they are living longer on new medications, new types of services are needed to keep pace with the side effects.   

We are proud to operate the AIDS Emergency Fund in a city known for its pioneering efforts in support of people living with HIV/AIDS. And we’re honored to have the support of companies in San Francisco that share our vision. Macy’s, through its Glamorama event Friday, along with employee donations and other charitable programs, has contributed more than $30 million to HIV/AIDS organizations and services.

The AIDS Emergency Fund and Macy’s are celebrating 30 years of supporting those living with HIV/AIDS.  We are committed to the longer-term fight for the end of AIDS, not just for an end to the epidemic.

Mike Smith is the executive director of the AIDS Emergency Fund

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