As thousands of experts and activists descend on Amsterdam this week to bolster the battle against Aids, it is sobering to reflect that efforts to eliminate the disease appear to have stymied.
Partial success in saving and prolonging lives, and stopping new HIV infections, is giving way to a dangerous complacency that could cause a resurgence of the epidemic, which has already killed 35m people.
In Ireland, new HIV diagnoses remain at their highest ever rates, with the Health Protection Surveillance Centres’ latest data revealing there has been no decline on 2017 figures. On average, we have 500 new HIV diagnoses every year.
Since the HIV virus was first identified, in the 1980s, there have been huge scientific advances in combating it, ensuring that a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.
People living with the condition can now lead full, healthy lives. Neither is it necessary to take dozens of pills daily to prevent the virus from developing into full-blown Aids. Most people with HIV now only need to take a single tablet every day.
There have also been developments in prevention, which allow HIV-negative people to take anti-retroviral drugs, known as PrEP, and reduce the risk of becoming infected with HIV, if sexually exposed to the virus.
Allied to that is a major reduction in the social stigma that once attached to people with HIV even in the most liberal countries, leading to social isolation.
Yet, for all that international effort, the holy grail of developing a vaccine is as far away as ever. Even more worrying is the fact that new HIV infections have surged in parts of the world, as global attention has dwindled and funding has levelled-off.
According to leaders of the anti-Aids movement attending the 22nd annual International Aids Conference in Amsterdam, HIV is still spreading with ease among the most vulnerable people.
“The encouraging reductions in new HIV infections that occurred for about a decade have emboldened some to declare that we are within reach of ending Aids,” said Peter Piot, a veteran virus researcher and founder of the UNAids agency.
“There is absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion,” he warned. “The language on ending Aids has bred a dangerous complacency.”
The ease of treatment may have done likewise in a number of countries, including Ireland. PrEP is not currently available through the HSE and costs at least €100 a month, although Health Minister Simon Harris has tweeted that he is “working hard on this. The plan is to roll out PrEP programme from the start of 2019. “
While efforts to find a vaccine against Aids must be renewed internationally, we in Ireland cannot afford to ignore the fact that HIV is a growing crisis here.
Dr Paddy Mallon, head of the UCD School of Medicine’s HIV molecular research group, has called Ireland’s ongoing, high rate of HIV diagnoses, and the lack of effective action by the Government in response, “a disgrace”. Those are sobering words, not just for Mr Harris, but for us all.