There was a refrain that was heard in almost every speech this week at the International AIDS Conference in Washington: We are on the verge of ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
That wasn't a statement that could be made 30 years ago when the pandemic was first identified. It wasn't a statement that would be uttered at the last International AIDS Conference I attended two years ago in Vienna.
But in the nation's capital this week, that was all the buzz.
At the opening session Sunday night (July 23), Michael Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said, "Now I want you to close your eyes. Listen to my words. We can end AIDS....Wear a condom, end AIDS. Give money, end AIDS."
The opening plenary (Juy 24) provided more of the same.
The first speaker was Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
"We are on scientifically solid ground when we say we can end the HIV/AIDS pandemic," Fauci told the audience of scientists, researchers and policymakers from around the world.
He added this caveat: "The end of AIDS will not be accomplished, however, without a major global commitment to make it happen. We have a historic opportunity –with science on our side – to make the achievement of an AIDS-free generation a reality."
Phill Wilson, president and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, made the same point when he followed Fauci.
"Welcome to the first International AIDS Conference where we know that we can end AIDS," he said. "Thirty-one years after the disease was discovered, right here in this country, we finally have the right combination of tools and knowledge to stop the epidemic. No, we don't have a cure or a vaccine yet.
"But David only had a slingshot, and he felled Goliath. Our tools are far from perfect, but they are good enough to get the job done – if, and this is a big if, we use them efficiently, effectively, expeditiously, and compassionately."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking next, said: "I want to salute all the people who are here today who do the hard work that has given us the chance to stand here in 2012 and actually imagine a time when we will no longer be afflicted by this terrible epidemic and the great cost and suffering it has imposed for far too long."
The fact that scientists and policymakers are speaking of the end of AIDS, even in guarded terms, represents a major breakthrough.
An International AIDS Conference fact sheet puts the disease in perspective:
"HIV/AIDS is one of the most destructive diseases humankind has ever faced and with profound social, economic and public health consequences, and has become one of the world's most serious health and development challenges. HIV is a leading cause of death worldwide. The first cases were reported in 1981 and since the beginning of the pandemic more than 30 years ago, nearly 30 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses. There is an estimated 34 million people living with HIV."
When researchers speak of "ending" HIV, that does not mean the disease will disappear.
"Ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic is an enormous and multifaceted challenge, but we now know it can be done," Fauci said. "It will require continued basic and clinical research, and the development and testing of additional treatment and HIV prevention interventions and, importantly, implementing these interventions on a much wider scale."
In a fact sheet distributed with Secretary Clinton' speech, success was defined this way: "An AIDS-free generation entails that first, no one will be born with the virus; second, that as people get older, they will be at far lower risk of becoming infected than they are today; and third, that if they do acquire HIV, they will get treatment that keeps them healthy and prevents them from transmitting the virus to others."
Until the development of a vaccine or cure, success will be defined by reaching people around the globe and applying some of the successful approaches already working in many parts of the world, including widespread testing, reducing mother-to-child transmission and expanding treatment options.
In the early days in the disease, AIDS was seen as a death sentence.
Rae Lewis-Thornton, an AIDS activist, found out she was HIV-positive in 1983. In a forthcoming interview with Heart & Soul magazine, she said: "When I made that transition to AIDS seven years later was when it all hit me like a ton of bricks," Lewis-Thornton said "Then it became the expectation of death. The average time span from AIDS to death was three years."
But thanks to advancements in antiretroviral medications and greater emphasis on testing, prevention and treatment, AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was three decades ago.
(George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and editorial director of Heart & Soul magazine. He can be reached via www.georgecurry.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ currygeorge.)