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Getting to Zero: The Ongoing Fight Against HIV/AIDS

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By Senator Kerry

In the fight against AIDS, "Getting to Zero" was once considered a pipe dream. HIV/AIDS was a scourge with no discernable cause and no known cure. As it spread around the world, threatening to steal the lives of all afflicted, eradicating this disease was merely a distant hope. But today, zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero deaths from this disease isn't just the theme of World AIDS Day 2011 -- it is an achievable goal.

Momentum in our fight against HIV/AIDS has been steadily building since before the first annual World AIDS Day 24 years ago. Scientific discoveries have shed light on the disease and offered new preventative measures. And medical breakthroughs have yielded improving treatments.

Contracting HIV was once a death sentence, but today patients receiving appropriate treatment can expect to live as long as the general population. For anyone who remembers how lost, fearful, and helpless the world felt in the face of this disease just 20 years ago, this is a testament to how far we have come.

The decades we have spent establishing a global infrastructure to fight HIV/AIDS -- including education and access to condoms, doctor training, reliable testing, and affordable and effective treatments are bearing fruit. And I'm proud to have played an active part in those sustained efforts.

A recent United Nations report found that the number of new infections worldwide has fallen by 21 percent since peaking 13 years ago and the number of deaths related to this disease has fallen by 21 percent since 2005. This means that literally millions of lives have been saved through prevention and treatment -- proof that we are beating back this disease.

Moreover, Gallup reports that in sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS is most prevalent, between 70 and 90 percent of adults appear to be well informed about some of the most effective preventative measures. This means the right message is getting out to the communities with the highest rates of infection.

In Massachusetts, which remains one of the top ten states in total reported AIDS cases, the annual number of new HIV diagnoses declined by more than half between 2000 and 2009.

Of course, even with momentum on our side, "Getting to Zero" remains a monumental challenge that will take more time, money, and will. It will take the continued persistence and attention of the United States to lead the world toward that end. It will also require changing hearts and minds about this disease and the populations afflicted by it.

Zeroing out discrimination that contributes to the spread of this disease is a goal that is more difficult to measure than our scientific progress, but it is essential to our success. Stigma and prejudice too often act as deterrents to getting tested and encourage people to keep quiet about high-risk behaviors. Homophobia in particular breeds shame and fear -- powerful and destructive forces that discourage people from getting the help they need. To build on our success, we must break the ugly power of stigma by remaining vigilant against inhumane discrimination whenever and wherever we see it. That is why I wrote legislation in 2008 to overturn the severe and misguided ban on HIV-positive travelers and immigrants from visiting the United States. And last year, I led Congressional efforts to get the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to end the lifetime ban on gay men donating blood, an outdated and scientifically unwarranted policy born decades ago out of fear of what was then often considered a "gay disease."

There is much more work to be done and many more hearts and minds to change. We must continue to make the necessary investments here and around the world to eradicate HIV/AIDS, building on the progress we have already made. Miraculous science, profound determination, and open hearts and minds have transformed the goal of "Getting to Zero" from the distant dream of "if" to the ever closer reality of "when."


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