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Call to Action

By Melissa J. Barber, Lulu R. Tsao, and Alyssa Yamamoto

World AIDS Day is commonly observed as a day of remembrance, raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and honoring the memories of those who have died from the global pandemic, but on this symbolic day we must not stop at mere memories. Without a strong activist movement centered on increasing access to AIDS treatment and prevention programs through a piecemeal approach with long-term solutions we risk losing crucial momentum in the fight against AIDS.

While efforts protesting today’s harsh political and economic realities such as the Occupy Movement prove essential in shaping public discourse and vocalizing unheard voices, we, the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition, hope that the energy and discontent of the majority can be harnessed together with our research capacity as university students towards specific, measurable solutions to these particular and important global problems. Programs that have proven effective at saving lives, whether longstanding like the president’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria or newly instituted like the Medicines Patent Pool must be maintained with rigor and hope.

This past year alone has witnessed a number of scientific advances in the realm of HIV/AIDS. The HPTN052 study proved that people living with HIV who are on antiretroviral treatment are 96 percent less likely to communicate HIV. Thus, treatment is in fact prevention. Another study held by the Center for Disease Control found that antiretroviral pills drastically reduce the risk of infection among heterosexual couples. Finally an economics study concluded that investing in AIDS treatment pays back between 81 and 287 percent within just ten years. But information alone is not enough to foster a world free of HIV infections, AIDS-related deaths, and HIV/AIDS stigmatization.

Now more than ever, actions must be made to reach our vision of an AIDS-free world. Just two weeks ago Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the National Institutes of Health, praising the role of the U.S. in spearheading research and development for antiretroviral drugs and funding lifesaving treatment and prevention programs. Secretary Clinton proclaimed, “Our efforts have helped set the stage for the historic opportunity the world has today: to change the course of this pandemic and usher in an AIDS-free generation.” It is our role as global citizens and well-informed students to ensure that these are not just empty words. For without public pressure, public and private actors will lose sight of the moral imperative to fight for the lives of impoverished, dying people.

Just last week, the Global Fund declared that it was canceling its next funding round, … and will not be offering new funding until 2014. In the meantime, millions of people will be denied access to antiretroviral treatment, bed nets, and Tuberculosis medications because of global leaders reneging on their commitments. As President Obama and Congress make excuses about necessary budget cuts we need to realize that the Global Fund makes up merely 0.001 percent of the budget and foreign aid at large makes up only 0.01 percent of the budget. While politicians claim that drastic cuts need to be made in order to reduce the U.S. deficit, global health funding is not only just a drop in the bucket, it is also crucial for America’s moral integrity and, more pragmatically, national security. Aggressive cuts to lifesaving foreign assistance is no way to balance the budget.

But the current political system is not wholly to blame. Corporations including pharmaceutical companies are deeply embedded in profit-driven mentalities that can often lose sight of human variables. For instance, Gilead is the only big pharmaceutical company to join the Medicines Patent Pool, an innovative mechanism in which patent-holders share intellectual property to allow generic access to antiretroviral medicines. And while a number of pharmaceuticals have entered negotiations with the Pool, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche and Boehringer-Ingelheim, many companies—Merck & Co., Abbott Laboratories, and Johnson & Johnson—refuse to even negotiate with the foundation. Corporate greed is not entirely at fault. Multinational agreements such as the still developing Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could reverse the Bush-era trade reforms that enhanced access to drugs, similarly foster morally unconscionable behavior.

Today, on World AIDS Day, the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition will hold a Pool Party demonstration outside a pharma-attended conference in Boston, urging Merck specifically to join the Medicines Patent Pool and reformulate its AIDS policies. But this is only a sliver of a much broader access to medicines movement that urgently needs to be revitalized. For now more than ever the end of AIDS has become a legitimate scientific possibility—we just need the political and corporate support to make this vision a reality.

Alyssa T. Yamamoto ’12 is a comparative religion concentrator living in Dunster House, Lulu R. Tsao ’12 is a chemical and physical biology concentrator living in Currier House, and Melissa J. Barber ’13 is a social studies concentrator living in Kirkland House. All three are members of the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition.

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