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Editorial: Don't let up on AIDS fight now

Indian students hold candles during a rally to

Indian students hold candles during a rally to mark World AIDS Day in Jammu. (Dec. 1, 2012) Credit: AP

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has outlined a blueprint for creating an AIDS-free generation. Reaching that goal, which she announced last week, will take time, patience and money, but the very discussion of it is a milestone: It is now possible to talk about a world in which AIDS -- after killing 30 million people in 30 years -- begins a slow fade.

How did we reach this point?

The answer is instructive: It wasn't with the breaththough discovery of a vaccine or a cure -- even though some of the best minds in medical research continue to work on those. Rather, the long fight against AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has progressed in a plodding ground game that has racked up steady, incremental gains.

The progress is undeniable: The number of new HIV infections has dropped 19 percent over the past 10 years worldwide, and AIDS-related deaths have dropped 26 percent since 2005.

Among the most recent advances:

A dramatically expanded use of life-saving antiretroviral drugs. In 2003, just 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa who needed the drugs got them. Today, more than 5 million people in Africa, along with more than 1 million in other parts of the world, are being treated with antiretrovirals.

The use of antiretroviral regimens to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission in utero. Between 2009 and 2011, the world saw a 24 percent drop in new HIV infections each year among children, from 430,000 cases to 330,000.

The crucial discovery in 2011 that antiretrovirals not only keep people with HIV alive but also reduce spread of the virus from someone who is infected to someone who is not.

What does Clinton mean by an AIDS-free generation?

She is talking about a world where virtually no children are born with HIV, and where kids can grow up and live as adults without a high risk of infection.

Another key point: Financed by initiatives such as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, this health-care effort has a broader aim than AIDS alone. It has created a global health-care supply line for immunizations and medicines to fight a multiplicity of lethal diseases.

This helps explain why agencies like UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, can now report dramatic drops in child mortality rates, not just for AIDS, but across the board.

The number of deaths among children younger than 5 has dropped more than 40 percent since 1990, UNICEF says.

The Clinton blueprint for an AIDS-free generation emphasizes a combination strategy that includes ending mother-to-child HIV transmission, expanding voluntary male circumcision and scaling up treatment for those living with HIV/AIDS.

But stepped-up programs will require stepped-up funding.

Even though the global economy remains troubled, this is no time for donor nations to pull back. The world has seen tremendous progress against AIDS and other diseases. It only makes sense to seize the moment and keep the momentum going.