"AIDS-free generation" in sight

12/1/2011

Children at an AIDS orphanage near Duban, South Africa, gather around the Rev. Donald Messer, chairperson of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Donald E. Messer.

New scientific breakthroughs, combined with social strategies, are the key to making an “AIDS-free generation” a reality.

Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state and a United Methodist, delivered that message — and challenge — a few weeks before the Dec. 1 observance of World AIDS Day.

The Rev. Donald Messer, chairperson of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee, says the goal of an AIDS-free generation is worthy of support from faith communities and nongovernmental organizations.

In fact, the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund has established the same goal.

Next spring, the fund’s “20/20: Visioning an AIDS-Free World,” a voluntary giving initiative, will be presented to General Conference, The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body, for denomination-wide endorsement.

In her Nov. 8 address at the National Institutes of Health, Clinton outlined how a combination of strategies, along with three scientific interventions — stopping mother-to-child transmission, expanding voluntary male circumcision and using treatment as a means of prevention — could usher in an AIDS-free generation.

Clinton’s definition of this generation: virtually no children would be born with HIV; they would be at far lower risk of becoming infected as teenagers or adults; if infected, they would have access to treatment to prevent them from developing AIDS.

Children at an AIDS orphanage near Duban, South Africa, gather around the Rev. Donald Messer, chairperson of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee. A UMNS web-only photo courtesy of the Rev. Donald E. Messer.Such a goal, she noted in her speech, “would have been unimaginable” until now. “Yet today, it is possible because of scientific advances largely funded by the United States and new practices put in place by this administration and our many partners,” she said.

Historic moment?

At a time when the global financial crisis is claiming the world’s attention, political will is necessary for success, Messer pointed out.

“The test for the Obama administration and Congress will be whether they can sustain the bipartisan support AIDS programs have enjoyed or whether lack of political will and budget-cutting will undermine what Clinton calls ‘this historic moment’ when the world has an opportunity to defeat AIDS,” he wrote in a commentary for Poz Magazine

Positive indicators toward achieving an AIDS-free generation already exist. The 2011 UNAIDS World AIDS Day report shows that new HIV infections have been reduced by 21 percent since 1997, and AIDS-related deaths dropped by 21 percent since 2005. Early signs indicate that HIV treatment is having a significant impact on reducing the number of new infections, the report said.

UNAIDS and the World Health Organization estimate 47 percent of the some 14.2 million people eligible for treatment in low- and middle-income countries were able to get the drug therapy they needed in 2010, an increase of 1.35 million over the previous year.

Volunteers from Foundry United Methodist Church, in Washington D.C., load food they've packed into vehicles for transport to HIV/AIDS clients' homes. A UMNS photo by John Coleman.Volunteers from Foundry United Methodist Church, in Washington D.C., load food they've packed into vehicles for transport to HIV/AIDS clients' homes. A UMNS photo by John Coleman.

But that’s not quite enough, even in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Nov. 29 that only 28 percent of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States receive the level of treatment needed for maximum life expectancy.

Linda Bales Todd, a Global AIDS Fund committee member and executive with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, believes the goal of an AIDS-free generation is achievable if the world community mobilizes around it.

“We need to do a better job in terms of education and access to treatment,” she said. “More and more people are saying treatment is a form of prevention.”

Fund supports projects

The Global AIDS Fund already is pursuing the AIDS-free generation goal by supporting 175 HIV/AIDS church-oriented and Christ-centered ministries in 37 countries, including the United States.

These ministries also can contribute to the interventions outlined by Clinton, noted Messer, who serves as director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.

Church-related hospitals, clinics and volunteers, for example, can pursue the “very achievable objective” of whittling down the number of children — currently some 370,000 — born with HIV through infected mothers, he said.

This work already is being implemented in Sierra Leone, as Beatrice Gbanga, coordinator of United Methodist health programs in West Africa, reported recently.

Protesters hold signs urging zero discrimination during the 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Busan, South Korea. A UMNS web-only photo by the Rev. Don Messer.Protesters hold signs urging zero discrimination during the 10th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific in Busan, South Korea. A UMNS web-only photo by the Rev. Don Messer.

Assistance in Sierra Leone from the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund has provided food support, health survival kits, disease-prevention and management classes, AIDS-prevention clubs in schools, and pre- and post-delivery care for pregnant mothers and their babies, including measures to prevent, test and treat HIV.

“The message from my friends, those living with HIV and AIDS,” she told members of the Global AIDS Fund committee, “is please continue to help us survive … (and) advocate so we can have an AIDS-free world.”

Conference on stigma of AIDS

The ongoing battle, Messer said, “is to overcome bias and bigotry in the community of faith” and elsewhere.

The stigma attached to AIDS will be “the primary focus” of the denomination’s fourth “Lighten the Burden” conference on April 23, 2012, at Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla., Todd said.

Speakers at the pre-General Conference event will include Ivan Abrahams, the new top executive of the World Methodist Council and former presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, and Pauline Muchina, senior partnership advisor for UNAIDS.

“While antiretroviral treatment has led to reduction of new HIV infections, our goal should be ZERO infections,” he explained. “This will only be achieved as people have access to testing and we work towards ending discrimination against those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

“Just as apartheid marginalized and tore families apart, this scourge discriminates and stigmatizes,” said Abrahams, who called for a renewed commitment to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. “Like with apartheid, those most vulnerable are women and children. We must tackle the disease holistically through education, treatment and addressing poverty, patriarchy and gender justice.”   

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.