Throughout June and July, I was fixated on—some might even say obsessed with—cheering on the US team in the Women’s World Cup. I still remember where I was and how I felt watching the 1999 US women’s squad (dubbed “the 99ers” by sports media) win the tournament in dramatic penalty kicks, so I was equally excited to watch this year’s team (“the 15ers”) bring the title back home in an equally dominating fashion.
With the victory still fresh in my mind and the 15ers featured everywhere from Sports Illustrated covers to Taylor Swift concerts, I was ecstatic to learn that something coincidental and amazing had happened: we had another group of 15ers in our midst. Because as it turns out, UNAIDS announced last week that the world had reached a huge milestone: 15 million HIV-positive people on life-saving antiretroviral treatment in the year 2015.
15 million people on treatment is a pretty impressive figure in and of itself. But it’s even more impressive when you think about how far and how fast we’ve come. In 2000, less than 1% of people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries had access to treatment, which cost $10,000 per year or more. And even just a few years back, when the “15 million on treatment by 2015” goal was first officially set, a lot of people laughed, seeing it as a lofty stretch goal at best. Flash forward to today: not only did we achieve it, but we actually achieved it early, most likely back in March—more than 9 months ahead of schedule.
Just as the soccer 15ers spent lots of time thanking their teammates, their coaches, their support staff, and their fans in interviews, there is lots of shared credit to go around for this success in the fight against AIDS. Wealthy governments around the world who collectively helped kick-start the financing for treatment programs. Scientists working day-in, day-out to find new treatments and develop better tools. Activists who fought and protested for access to medicine, lower prices, and the rights of those infected. Affected countries’ leaders who have taken up increasing ownership of and made financial commitments to this fight. Dynamic partnerships including The Global Fund, UNITAID, and PEPFAR, which support the delivery of key AIDS programs. Engaged citizens all around the world who don’t let this issue fall to the back burner and who hold their governments accountable. And HIV-positive individuals themselves, who have persevered with dignity and strength, determined to not let their diagnosis define them.
Now is not the time to let up, and the battle is far from over. Nearly 37 million people are living with HIV/AIDS today, and the majority of them still do not have access to treatment. 2 million people are still becoming infected with the disease each year—including more than 600 babies each day—which means we have to double down and be smarter in our HIV prevention efforts. Together, we must do much better in getting services to the most marginalized people and groups around the world. And we must keep the pressure on donors, whose financing for AIDS has leveled off after years of increases.
So let us use this new crew of 15ers—those alive and thriving on treatment around the world—to inspire us, just like the other 15ers have. As Carli Lloyd, a soccer 15er who delivered one of the best goals in US soccer history, said, “I don’t just want to be a participant…I want to have a legacy.” May we be bolder with our vision for what’s possible, and may we use this milestone to drive us forward as we chart a path towards the ultimate defeat of this disease—a lasting legacy within reach.