12/01/2014 01:15 EST | Updated 01/31/2015 05:59 EST

Put a Face to the Numbers Struggling With HIV/AIDS


For a year, William didn't show his face to anyone. He had a mysterious skin condition and was ashamed to see his family, friends or anyone in public. So when the 36-year-old arrived at the Baraka health centre in rural Kenya last February, he wore a heavy jacket and a shuka that covered his whole body except for his eyes.

William's self-esteem took another hit when test results confirmed he was HIV positive. He believed his diagnosis was a death sentence--and it has been to millions of his fellow Africans. But after starting treatment with antiretroviral drugs and multivitamin tablets, and receiving counselling on adhering to his daily regimen, William's skin lesions slowly disappeared and his despair turned to hope.

Nine months later, William no longer covers his face--in fact he recently began wearing short-sleeved shirts again. His physical and mental strength has recovered enough that he is working and providing for family again. And he sees a promising and long future ahead. William still has HIV. The difference is he's living with it today.

For over three decades HIV/AIDS has been a faceless killer. In Africa alone, millions of lives have been lost and millions more are left with gaping holes where parents, sons and daughters once were. For each of those lives there is a human face--but today that face is more likely than ever to be hopeful. On an individual, community and global level, it's possible to conquer AIDS.

AIDS-related deaths have dropped year after year. They fell again in 2013 to 1.5 million worldwide--a full one-third lower than the peak of 2.3 million in 2005. New cases of HIV have similarly fallen on an annual basis, too, and the number of people receiving life-saving treatment around the world has close to doubled since 2010. Almost two-thirds of HIV-infected mothers have now received treatment to prevent transmission to their newborn children, leading to a 43 per cent reduction in the number of new cases in sub-Saharan African children since 2009.

We're winning the fight against HIV/AIDS, but we can't be complacent. There's still work to be done. For instance, more than 21 million people don't have access to the treatments that can lengthen and improve their lives--largely because an estimated 19 million are unaware they have HIV at all.

That's why the United Nations' latest global AIDS report--Fast Track: Ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030--focuses on access to testing as much as treatment. Its ambitious targets-which include ensuring 90 per cent of people living with HIV actually know their HIV status and 90 per cent of that group receive treatment--can save 21 million lives by 2020 and 28 million by 2030.

Behind those numbers are millions of faces like William's that need rural clinics like Baraka in Kenya. The same month William came for help, Korrir arrived with complaints of oral thrush and chronic diarrhea that was so persistent he was no longer able to socialize with friends. Stigma and fear initially prevented him from getting treatment. But after some counselling and one week on antiretrovirals, his diarrhea was gone. A month later, the thrush disappeared as well, and Korrir's blood results gave him hope for a long life with his children.

The cost of treating people like William and Korrir who have HIV is small. Just three dollars a day per patient over the next five years, according to UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé, "would break the epidemic for good." Globally that's $35.6 billion a year--one fiftieth of worldwide defence spending and one-fifth of the value of food wasted every year in the U.S. alone. And Sidibé estimates the return to GDP from fighting AIDS is five-fold in the economic contribution of those whose lives are saved and improved.

The world's attention is currently fixated on Ebola--and for good reason. But we can't forget about HIV and AIDS. Giving marginalized and isolated communities in the developing world--health clinics that can detect and treat HIV is the best way to win what is the defining pandemic of our time--and make the face of Africa a hopeful one.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

Video: The Baraka Health Clinic


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