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AIDS activist's hopes for an AIDS free world

The 25th World AIDS Day will be observed on Sunday with the theme “Shared Responsibility: Strengthening Results for an AIDS-Free Generation.” For Kevin Robert Frost, an AIDS-free generation is a realistic goal.

“We are not so far away from having a generation of people born who could live and remain HIV-free,” said Frost, CEO of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).

“We have the tools to do that, the question is do we have the political will and the resources to implement all of those tools,” Frost told in a telephone interview from Bangkok.

“We have gone from a disease that was universally fatal 30 years ago, and unfortunately fatal within a very short period of time, to a disease where with the right medicine and the right care is a chronic, manageable disease… such as diabetes or heart disease,” he added.

In fact, in the 30-plus years since the first reported case of AIDS was uncovered in Los Angeles,  medical research into HIV has made tremendous advances. In 2013, a two-and-a-half-year-old child from Mississippi was determined cured of HIV.

Photo provided by amfAR. amfAR/ Kevin Tachman ©2011
 The child, born with the virus that causes AIDS from a mother who tested HIV-positive, was given higher-than-normal levels of HIV medication. After being off medication for more than a year, the child showed no signs of infection.

The child is only the second reported case of a patient who appears cured of HIV. The other is Timothy Ray Brown, a 46-year-old American living in Berlin who was diagnosed with HIV and leukemia until a 2007 stem cell transplant appeared to cure him.

“A person who is 20 years old and becomes infected with HIV and has access to care and medicine can expect to live another 50 years, can expect to live to the age of 70,” he added.

AIDS is the sixth leading cause of death among people ages 25-44 in the United States, down from No. 1 in 1995. However, Frost says there is still one key group where the epidemic continues to grow.

“New infections among young black gay men, young Latino gay men, continues to rise and it’s an enormous challenge to try to figure out why and what interventions will work,” said Frost. “It’s not as simple as just wear a condom; it’s far more complex than that.”

Frustratingly for amfAR and other AIDS research organizations, funding for research and treatment programs was dramatically slowed in 2013 due to the U.S. government’s budget sequestration cuts.

“The effects of sequestration on the National Institutes of Health and on their budgets has been nothing short of catastrophic,” said Frost.

Around the world, 35 million people live with HIV. The cost of drugs to treat the virus is expensive, and the majority of people affected do not have access to the care and medicine that would allow them to live long and largely healthy lives.

However, Frost believes that the greatest obstacle in the battle against HIV may not necessarily be finding a cure.

“Making a cure broadly accessible will be a bigger challenge than simply finding a cure,” he said. 

“The bottom line is the vast majority of people living with HIV are in Africa. This is a disease which tends to affect poor people in poor countries internationally,” said Frost.

“The best estimate is that between 10-12 million of them are getting access to drugs… and unless we can provide medicine to all 35 million of them, we’re not going to be able to control the epidemic and we’re not going to be able to save their lives,” he added.
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