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Want to Cure AIDS? We Need More Than Hope

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About a month and a half ago, the 19th International AIDS Conference was filled with ambitious suggestions that the beginning of the end of AIDS was near.

The tone of the meeting was hopeful: the tools were clear, the successes were growing and there seemed to be little to stand in the way of progress. To celebrate, the United Nations unveiled a bright and hopeful document entitled "Together We Will End AIDS" that declared there was a true global solidarity to end the disease and eventually get to zero cases.

While there were no timelines or promises, hope seemed to be enough to keep the momentum growing. Indeed, with the announcement of a fully cured AIDS patient, the declaration that two others that appeared to be HIV-free, the approval of a new HIV treatment and the publication of positive results from a vaccine all suggested there was reason to believe.

Yet even as these successes were being touted, others were advising that an end to AIDS required more than just hope. The disease was more than just a biological phenomenon that caused a short-term infection like the flu. AIDS and its causative virus, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) were social afflictions rooted in intractable human behaviour, namely unsafe sex and intravenous drug use.

The conundrum is even more evident with each new study published. More money for treatment is helping but for every case that is treated another two are becoming infected. The efforts to increase the options for safe sex in remote areas are also successful but as learned from recent studies in Nigeria, and Kenya, the main problem for individuals wasn't access to condoms but their lack of knowledge of their own or their partner's HIV status.

More disheartening, just this year a study from Rwanda showed less than a third of sexually active youth even thought about the risks of HIV and that just over 10 per cent used condoms. In addition to sexual activity, intravenous drug use continues to be rampant worldwide and appears to be a driving force in spreading HIV even in areas where safe sex programs are in place. The End seemingly grows further from, rather than closer to, our grasp.

The root to victory is undoubtedly through the adoption of safe behaviours, but convincing people to act in a certain manner is difficult at best. While the "war on drugs" has tried -- and subsequently failed -- to curb the latter activity, there continues to be no means to restrict unsafe sexual activities from happening. Education, counselling, peer-pressure (also known as thought persuasion) are all helpful but will never reach every person and definitely not help those who are either not listening or not interested in participating due to differing social ideologies. The reality is that no matter how promising the message, actions speak louder than words and the result is discouraging.

There may be a solution to this quandary although it is less about announcing lofty goals and more about humanizing the overall battle against the disease. The best way to stop AIDS may be to turn the camera away from the politicians and the featured speakers and turn it to those who are working on the front lines. These so-called unsung heroes put in countless hours to stave off infection through a combination of human interaction and community advocacy. By giving them the international spotlight, as well as features in educational materials and other media intended for the public, those who are at risk may identify with the face on the cover and at least listen to, if not adopt the accompanying message.

There are a plethora of unsung heroes all of whom can help bring a human face to the effort. Every person who hands out a condom is working to prevent spread; each nurse who performs a blood test is helping to keep the public aware; each community support worker who assists the homeless or the poor offers support to those who may feel alone and out of options. The strategy of featuring these ordinary people in extraordinary ways to help convince the world that there is a better way has been adopted by at least one large organization, CNN, with their Tribute to Heroes, which has gone from being a television special to an All-Star event. Names such as Jackson Kaguri, Jesus Aguais, and Marie Da Silva have all worked at the community level to help beat AIDS and have gained international notoriety for their efforts. They may not be keynote speakers at an AIDS conference but they are true examples of success.

Granted, there is no guarantee that the tact will work but there is little doubt that featuring those who are the heart and soul of the battle against AIDS will be positively received. The only real question is whether or not those who are in the highest risk factor will listen. But as we have now learned from the aftermath of the AIDS conference, the use of big bold messages has done little to change the course. Perhaps it is the right time to move away from Big Proclamations and turn to the Big Picture, featuring the faces of the fight and giving appropriate recognition to the people who are simply doing what they believe is right to keep people safe from AIDS today and into the future.

They are after all, the true means to the End.