Flight MH17 & HIV/AIDS: This is personal

Flight MH17 & HIV/AIDS: This is personal

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On Thursday, frantic emails started popping up in my inbox.  News had broken that a plane had crashed in Ukraine, with hundreds of crew and passengers dead.  It registered as a horrible and senseless event; nothing more.

Then, I started to learn that some of the passengers were heading to the 2014 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Melbourne, Australia. Six delegates, including Dutch advocates with whom our ONE colleagues had partnered, had been killed—a terrible loss.

Suddenly, the news felt raw, and personal.  The victims were no longer faceless individuals part of a collective tragedy. They were part of my world, my community.

These were colleagues—fellow AIDS researchers, policy wonks, communicators, and advocates.

There is a quotation that argues: “One death is a tragedy, but one million deaths is a statistic.” The phrase is used to explain why we help neighbours in need but feel helpless or removed in the face of wider tragedies.

It’s been swirling through my head in the last few days.

The AIDS community is a ragtag bunch, bonded by a special solidarity.  It throws together PhDs and scientists with rebellious activists, students, and religious leaders. The AIDS pandemic required a unique kind of diversity and devotion.

For more than three decades, so many people from different walks of life moved together (though not always agreeing) to develop the tools and mobilise the resources and political will necessary to end this disease.  From die-ins in front of the White House in the US to laboratory benches in the Netherlands to clinics in Kenya, there has always been a rare blend of talents and tactics required from so many smart, funny, and dedicated individuals.  We have lost so many of these people—our AIDS community brothers and sisters—along the way. To lose more in a plane crash shocks us, and reminds us that this flight was not just a statistic.

As the conference opened, UNAIDS has released a new tranche of AIDS data that shows the progress we have made.

  • There are now 12.9 million people on antiretroviral treatment—2.3 million more people added in the last year alone, and a remarkable leap from just 300,000 in 2002.  More than 9 million of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • There were 2.1 million new HIV infections in 2013, down from 2.3 million a year prior.  Roughly 240,000 of these new infections were among infants and children, also down from 260,000 a year prior.
  • AIDS-related deaths are also declining, with 1.5 million deaths in 2013.

What’s even more incredible about some of these statistics is that they signaled we had reached a key milestone in our fight against AIDS: a tipping point.


Over the last three years, we have been tracking progress towards “the beginning of the end of AIDS”—the point at which the number of people newly added to treatment in a year is more than the number of people newly infected with HIV in the same year.  UNAIDS’ data showed that we achieved this in 2013, perhaps much earlier than expected.

Although we have always been careful to note that achieving the tipping point does not mean that the fight against AIDS is over, or even close to over, it is a major victory worth celebrating.  For the first time in the history of the disease, we are finally getting ahead of the curve.

But as I took a step back from all these data points this week, I was reminded again that “a million is a statistic.”  Those of us in the AIDS community may understand the historic nature of achieving a tipping point, but for many, these numbers will remain faceless data points.

Just as the names, photos, and stories of the victims from MH17 will add poignancy and depth to the tragedy in the days to come, it is important that we also remember the names, photos, and stories of those impacted by HIV/AIDS —the real people with real lives.

Constance (Connie) Mudenda, for example, is a Zambian woman who many of us at ONE and (RED) have come to know well over many years.  She is a woman of great presence and strength who has lived through any mother’s hell: losing all three of her young children to HIV/AIDS before learning that she herself was HIV-positive.  Fortunately, she was able to access life-saving antiretroviral treatment through programs supported by the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund, restoring her own health and allowing her to help other women within her community.  And miraculously, just two years ago, she gave birth to an HIV-negative baby named Lubona, who is now a smiling, beautiful, and healthy young toddler.

As we think about the 1.5 million AIDS deaths that still occur needlessly every year, let’s think of and remember Connie’s first three children.  Let’s rejoice over Lubona and remember so many others who are still not as fortunate. Let’s think of Connie—thriving on treatment, able to counsel so many others, and helping bend the curve of the pandemic in Zambia.

All of these people, too, are members of our global AIDS community.  They have faces and names; they aren’t just numbers on a boarding manifest. And this is personal.


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