Note: This is an opinion piece written by Sir Elton John for USA TODAY.
It has been 30 years since AIDS first surfaced and began decimating communities throughout America. We are now perhaps in the final stretch of the long journey toward a cure. This March, a Mississippi baby was confirmed as another person potentially cured of HIV. French researchers suggested that 14 patients appear to be functionally cured. Experts are openly debating how close we are to beating the disease.
Lost in this discussion, however, is a sad reality: Science has already given us the means to end this epidemic, but stigma toward those with AIDS has prevented us from doing so.
The reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic today is that the people who are most at risk for infection and illness have been historically denied quality health care and continue to face systematic discrimination and disenfranchisement. In other words, they are poor people, people of color, people who are gay, lesbian or transgender, and people who use drugs. The science of medical treatment has progressed significantly — and yet, our attitudes toward these communities, and our treatment of them, are preventing society from implementing measures that could essentially eradicate the epidemic.
Make no mistake: Discrimination and intolerance fuel this disease.
We see this plainly in the United States. Many Southern states refuse to expand Medicaid insurance, which would provide HIV treatment for the poor, or to support syringe access programs, which are proved to be effective in combating the spread of HIV. It's no wonder that, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, seven of the 10states with the highest concentration of HIV diagnoses are in the South.
The same destructive stigma is evident around the world, particularly in Eastern Europe, where the HIV epidemic is growing faster than anywhere else. In Ukraine, religious groups that believe AIDS is caused by sin treat HIV-positive people with contempt. In major cities such as Kiev, Odessa and Donetsk, more than 100,000 homeless young people are at high risk of infection. Many turn to prostitution to survive; others numb their pain with cheap drugs. As many as 28% are HIV-positive.
Where is the outrage from the international community?
Scientific breakthroughs are exciting indeed. Medical research has already given us treatments that allow HIV-positive adults to live long and healthy lives. They are highly effective in preventing HIV transmission through sex. They prevent the transmission of HIV from infected mothers to their babies during pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, global health experts estimate that it would take just an additional $3 billion to $5 billion per year to provide lifesaving medicine and proven prevention methods to all those who need it around the world by 2015. That sounds like a lot of money, but it's less than the amount Americans alone spent on pet food last year.
Cures don't mean much if they don't reach the people who need them. When families, churches and governments persecute people for who they are and how they became infected, those people don't get tested for HIV. When lifesaving medicines are expensive, when clinics are far, and when doctors are rude (if they will treat patients at all), people delay seeking treatment.
Ignorance, religious intolerance and political grandstanding are preventing us from implementing proven, effective, common-sense prevention methods such as condom distribution, needle exchange programs and comprehensive sexual health education.
The Elton John AIDS Foundation has invested more than $300 million in programs that work with marginalized communities — young gay men, sex workers, people struggling with drug addiction, and those just out of prison — to give them the information and support they need to get the health care they deserve. Governments around the world that are doing the same are seeing a precipitous drop in HIV/AIDS infections.
I hope and pray that science will find a cure for AIDS very soon. But more than a new medical breakthrough, we need a breakthrough in our understanding of what really drives this epidemic, and how our lack of compassion for those suffering from HIV/AIDS is making the epidemic so much worse.
To end AIDS, we need more than a cure — we need compassion.
Sir Elton John is the author of Love Is the Cure, out in paperback this week, and the founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
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