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The 30-year war on HIV/AIDS has entered a critical phase. There is relief world-wide over the availability of drugs that are able now to contain the spread of the dreaded virus. However, access to these drugs for millions suffering from the disease remains a distant dream. Unlike previous international conferences on HIV/AIDS, where the outlook was one of doom and gloom, the mood in the ongoing conference at Vienna — the 18th since the virus became known in 1981 — appears to be optimistic. Giant strides have been made in containing the virus. The world can justifiably celebrate the fact that we now have antiretroviral drugs, that can keep the HIV suppressed, preventing it from becoming full blown AIDS. If in the past, the diagnosis of HIV in a person was looked upon as a death sentence, today it can be managed with medication.

The number of people accessing treatment has witnessed a giant leap over the past decade. According to the World Health Organisation, this figure has grown 12-fold between 2003 and 2010. The number of people receiving AIDS treatment has grown from 1.2 million in 2009 to 5.2 million this year. India can take pride in having contributed to this enhanced access. Its production of low-cost generic AIDS drugs has helped fight the disease in several developing countries. However, there is reason for concern. More people may be receiving treatment than ever before but two-thirds of those suffering from the disease worldwide are still not being provided treatment. There is concern too that international funding to subsidise treatment of AIDS in developing countries will be cutback in a few years. Will the disease’s spread accelerate then? Besides, the virus continues to spread at a worrying rate. There are around 2.7 million new cases each year.

Scientists are exploring vaccines and virus-thwarting gels, even circumcision as possible ways to prevent the spread of the virus. Years of frustrating research into the HIV virus could yield solutions soon. The stakeholders must bear in mind the need to keep these treatments affordable and accessible to all sections of society. A preventive vaccine or gel will be good news only when it is available to all. The world can consider itself safe from the spread of HIV only when every single individual is declared free from it.

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