Commemorating the 25th World AIDS Day a day late, President Obama announced an initiative Monday to find a cure for HIV infections that would be funded by $100 million shifted from existing spending.
“The United States should be at the forefront of new discoveries into how to put people into long-term remission without requiring lifelong therapies — or better yet, eliminate it completely,” Obama said at a meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
The initiative reflects a growing optimism among scientists that it may be possible to get patients’ immune systems to control HIV without drugs, or even to eliminate the virus from their systems. A feat like that seemed impossible not so long ago. The moneywill come from expiring AIDS research grants over the next three years, the administration said in a statement.
The president also pledged $5 billion over the next three years to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria if other countries contribute twice that amount. The Global Fund is holding its fourth replenishment meeting this week in Washington, with a goal of topping the $9.3 billion pledged three years ago.
And he signed legislation enacted last month to extend the 10-year-old President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, started by President Bush.
Obama boasted that PEPFAR has exceeded the goal — thought to be ambitious when he set it on World AIDS Day two years ago – of getting anti-HIV treatment to 6 million people in developing countries. “Today I’m proud to announce that we’ve not only reached our goal, we’ve exceeded our treatment goal,” he said. “We’ve helped 6.7 million people receive life-saving treatment, and we’re going to keep at it.”
Obama also noted that the waiting list for treatment under the federal-state AIDS Drug Assistance Program last week fell to zero, from a peak of 9,310 in the fall of 2011.
Apart from that domestic bright spot, however, a report card on how America is doing with its own HIV epidemic reveals only slow progress.
In a panel discussion following Obama’s remarks, Dr. Chris Beyrer of Johns Hopkins University pointed out that when PEPFAR and the Global Fund began, AIDS experts were betting it would be easier to combat HIV in targeted populations in America than to get millions of HIV-infected people in sub-Saharan Africa into treatment.
But the opposite has happened. “African-American men are about half as likely” to have their HIV infection under control as non-Hispanic white men, Beyrer says. “And two-thirds of new infections are among men who have sex with men.”
The White House report is thin on promising results, as one section puts it, and heavy on challenges.
For instance, a 2010 National AIDS Strategy set a goal of reducing new HIV infections in this country by 25 percent. But the incidence “remains unacceptably high,” the latest report says. And, in fact, new HIV infections increased 12 percent among men who have sex with men in the most recent figures – 22 percent among the youngest males, from 13 to 24 years old.
The strategy aimed to increase the percent of HIV-infected who know their status to 90 percent. But the most recent figures indicate undiagnosed HIV decreased by only 9 percent between 2006 and 2010. And fewer than half of those between ages 13 and 24 years are aware of their infection.
When it comes to effective anti-HIV treatment, fewer than half of Americans at highest risk – men who have sex with men, blacks and Latinos – get sufficient antivirals drugs to keep their HIV under control.
Still, there’s evidence that concerted efforts to combat HIV can pay off in the most heavily affected places. The report cites impressive gains in New York City, the District of Columbia and San Francisco.
“All three have made care and treatment very available, have ramped up testing and needle exchanges,” says Chris Collins, policy director of amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research. “When you do that, you see infection rates fall.”
For instance, when Washington, D.C., increased publicly funded HIV testing from 400 tests in 2007 to 120,000 in 2011, newly diagnosed cases went down by almost half. Newly diagnosed cases have also fallen by half in New York City and San Francisco.
The proportion of HIV-treated people whose virus was suppressed has gone steadily up in New York City, especially after the health department recommended that all newly diagnosed patients should be offered anti-retroviral treatment. By the end of last year, nearly 8 in 10 were virally suppressed.