UNAIDS Summit Launches ‘Countdown to Zero’ Plan; Nations With High Numbers of Pregnant Women With HIV Targeted

NEW YORK— More than 30 heads of state and vice presidents converged on the United Nations alongside activists, celebrities and think-tank experts Wednesday (8 June) to train a spotlight on a worldwide epidemic: HIV/AIDS.

At the UNAIDS Summit, world leaders announced a bold international plan aimed at eliminating most new HIV infections among children, who inherit the condition from already infected mothers, by 2015. The leaders also agreed to commit more resources to educating individuals about the deadly disease.

“Countdown to Zero,” as the plan is called, will focus on 22 countries with the highest numbers of pregnant women living with HIV. The countries are Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“We believe that by 2015 children everywhere can be born free of HIV and that their mothers can remain healthy,” said UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe. 

According to Sidibe, 1.8 million people die of AIDS every year in the developing world. He said 9 million people in the world await treatment, and, despite successes in HIV prevention and treatment, more people than ever before are living with the virus, 34 million according to the latest estimates. More than 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS over the past 30 years. Sidibe says that the decline in international funding for AIDS may have contributed to some of those deaths. 

“We cannot stop our investment now,” he said. “With an effective up-front investment we can make the down payment to alter the costs trajectory and end this epidemic.”

HIV advocates say an additional $6 billion will be needed every year by 2015 to help avert 12 million new infections and more than 7 million deaths by 2020.

“If resources go down—people most in need will suffer,” said Tetyana Afanasiadi, a human rights activist from Ukraine. “The lives of millions of people directly depend on the resources allocated. Today I am alive thanks to antiretroviral therapy and opioid substitution therapy, which I had access to through prevention and support programs. Reducing the resources allocated to those programs is a direct threat for me and for millions of people around the world.”

Last week, the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) announced an additional $75 million to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV. This funding will be on top of the approximately $300 million that PEPFAR already provides annually for PMTCT.

And former U.S. President Bill Clinton has used his foundation to tackle the problem in developing nations by providing medicine and healthcare supplies to poorer nations.

“There are still too many babies born with HIV,” Clinton said, in addressing the world leaders in attendance. “The time has come to end pediatric AIDS worldwide. We know we can do it.”

It was 10 years ago that the U.N. held its historic Special Session on HIV/AIDS. In 2006, member-states committed to universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support. 

“Today, we gather to end AIDS,” said Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the U.N. “That is our goal—zero new infections, zero stigma and zero AIDS-related deaths. We are here today to ensure that all children are born healthy and free of disease. We are here to ensure that their mothers live to see them grow.”

But despite the progress over the years, challenges still remain.

“Inequality, discrimination and laws against people living with or at risk of HIV continue to block access to HIV services for people most in need,” said Sidibe. “We need a response to HIV that is grounded in human rights and one that promotes quality and equity. Achieving this will open the way to a world free from HIV.”

Some places have fared worse than others.

In 2009, 370,000 children were born with HIV, the vast majority of them live in countries located across Africa. In the U.S., there is a growing concern among new HIV cases among Black women and their newly born children. Organizations like the Black AIDS Institute, based in Los Angeles, recently launched the “Test 1 Million” campaign, a call-to-action initiative aimed at getting 1 million Black Americans tested for HIV.

And at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, administrators have stepped up their efforts to implement educational programs focused on HIV/AIDS awareness. Two years ago, Cheyney University, located in southeastern Pennsylvania, made national headlines after a prostitute tested HIV positive and claimed that she had unprotected sex with at least 10 Cheyney students.

In a new report released by UNAIDS, advocates call for HIV and AIDS education as early as elementary school.

“It is time to seize the opportunities to promote sexuality education and comprehensive knowledge of HIV and other health matters among very young adolescents before they become sexually active,” explains a new UN report on HIV/AIDS. “This is the window in which to intervene, before most youth become sexually active and before gender roles and norms that have negative consequences for later sexual and reproductive health become well established.”