Leading article: Belt-tightening can't apply to Aids

 

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Here's the good news for World Aids Day. The number of people dying from the disease around the world declined for the third year in a row last year. This is chiefly because of a range of new drugs which ensure that HIV infection is no longer the swift death sentence it was when the epidemic began to sweep the world 30 years ago.

Two big things have happened. Testing has been introduced which allows for detection of the virus in the early years when treatment is massively more effective. And combinations of antiretroviral drugs keep people alive and healthy, giving them an almost normal life expectancy.

But the bad news is that politicians have decided they cannot afford the money to keep up the fight. In 2010, international funding for HIV and Aids control was cut for the first time in 10 years.

We need to spend more not less. Treatment levels had soared in just five years to reach 6.6 million people sick enough to need the drugs. But there are 7.6 million individuals who need those medicines and are not getting them.

Now that number looks set to grow because moves to stem the spread of the disease have been curtailed. New infections are on the rise again after falling for years. About 2.7 million people were infected last year – double the number brought into treatment. People are now becoming infected faster than they can be tested and treated.

The global economic downturn has led to a funding crisis with international donations down to $7.6bn in 2010 from a high of $8.7bn in 2009. Treble that will be needed by 2015. Instead, the Global Fund to Fight Aids, tuberculosis and malaria has just announced it will now be unable to hand out new grants. Those newly infected with HIV will get no help. But what may be worse is that, if those already on the combination treatments come off them, the virus may become resistant to existing drugs.

The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton writes in today's Independent of her government's ambition to achieve "an Aids-free generation". It is a noble and realistic ambition. But realising it will take a lot more than words.

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