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The Economist: The End of AIDS?

June 2, 2011

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In a print feature, The Economist argues that AIDS is in a position to be squelched by new advances in scientific research and political activism.

On June 5th 1981 America's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported the outbreak of an unusual form of pneumonia in Los Angeles. When, a few weeks later, its scientists noticed a similar cluster of a rare cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma in San Francisco, they suspected that something strange and serious was afoot. That something was AIDS.

Since then, 25m people have died from AIDS and another 34m are infected. The 30th anniversary of the disease's discovery has been taken by many as an occasion for hand-wringing. Yet the war on AIDS is going far better than anyone dared hope. A decade ago, half of the people in several southern African countries were expected to die of AIDS. Now, the death rate is dropping. In 2005 the disease killed 2.1m people. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 1.8m. Some 5m lives have already been saved by drug treatment. In 33 of the worst-affected countries the rate of new infections is down by 25% or more from its peak.

Even more hopeful is a recent study which suggests that the drugs used to treat AIDS may also stop its transmission (see article). If that proves true, the drugs could achieve much of what a vaccine would. The question for the world will no longer be whether it can wipe out the plague, but whether it is prepared to pay the price.

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