Struggling to make himself understood, Michael is clearly not a well man. Dressed in a bright green t-shirt emblazoned with the words “HIV AIDS Ambassador”, Michael is a leader of an HIV/AIDS Support Group I visited recently in South Africa. He is also one of 5.3 million South African people living with HIV/AIDS.
In contrast, HIV/AIDS has been a reality in Australia for the past 21 years, with over 20,000 Australians having been infected with the virus. Commendably, Federal and State governments have shown strong leadership in the way they have tackled HIV/AIDS at home, ensuring that infection rates remain relatively low.
Australia has also shown some commitment in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic abroad, particularly within Asia and the Pacific. At the recent APEC Summit, Prime Minister Howard called for “no-nonsense” leadership by national governments in tackling HIV/AIDS.
Yet the Prime Minister’s words would have greater credibility if Australia significantly scaled up its level of leadership on HIV/AIDS globally.
The level of global need has never been more shockingly apparent. New statistics released by UNAIDS recently show 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV. Five million people became HIV positive in 2004 and another three million people died of AIDS. Each of these hard hitting statistics represents someone’s life, yet does little to reveal the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on families and communities: from elderly grandparents caring for their orphaned grandchildren or in many cases, young children being left to fend for themselves.
The sheer scale of the HIV/AIDS crisis means the ramifications are felt everywhere. It undermines political, economic and social stability. It reverses development gains. The situation is not going to get any better unless governments worldwide do more - and quickly.
There have been some significant gains made in recent years. Global spending on HIV/AIDS has tripled since 2001 to nearly $8 billion in 2004. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has been established, approving more than $4 billion for programs in 128 of the worst affected countries. The World Health Organisation is leading efforts to expand treatment to three million people living with HIV by the end of 2005. Access to prevention and care services has improved, with more people receiving HIV/AIDS education, able to use voluntary counselling and testing facilities, and access services to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV.
But much is still to be achieved. The Global Fund’s progress remains threatened by inadequate financing by international donors. Treatment remains out of reach for the millions who need it. Millions more have no access to prevention services. A promising vaccine is still to materialise. Microbicides to protect women from infection are still years away from being available and need additional financing to speed up research and development. Stigma and discrimination are a daily burden for many living with HIV. Millions of children who have been orphaned need care and support.
Australia has the opportunity to make a difference. With a growing economy and budget surpluses, we can afford to do more and help save lives.
A prime means for demonstrating such leadership is through Australia’s commitment to the Global Fund. Pledging $8.3 million each year over the next three years is far below the amount Australia can and should give. All donors must pay their fair share of the Fund’s financial needs if progress in tackling the epidemic is to be sustained and advanced. For Australia, this means an additional contribution of at least $75 million in 2005.
If the Prime Minister is serious about the need for no-nonsense leadership, let it begin with Australia paying its fair share to address the global HIV/AIDS crisis.
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