Commentary: Time to Turn Up the Burners – A Reflection from AIDS 2014
Written by The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer
July 22, 2014

My colleague, the Rev. Jape Mokgethi-Heath of the Church of Sweden, characterized the main message of AIDS 2014, "You don't turn off the burner before the water boils. The reason is obvious and in the context of the HIV epidemic – we actually need to turn up the burners to move the tipping point and eradicate the disease by 2030.

Although the International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) began on a somber note with the deaths of six colleagues in the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, the spirit of optimism has never been stronger. This is primarily due to clear evidence that even without a cure, we are on the road to defeating HIV. By employing a combination of prevention methods along with treatment, we can prevent the transmission of HIV and sustain undetectable viral loads in those living with the virus. When a person living with HIV has undetectable levels of the virus, the possibility that they can transmit the virus is extremely small.

At a session just prior to the conference's opening ceremonies, a high-level panel, which included UNAIDS Executive Michel Sidibe, laid out how the end of AIDS could be achieved by 2030. They reported that we are already on track to reach the goal of 20 million on treatment by 2020, as they announced the new 90-90-90 targets.

These new targets are:

  • 90 percent of those living with HIV know their status
  • 90 percent of those who know that they are HIV positive are on anti-retroviral treatment (ART)
  • 90 percent of those on ART have undetectable levels of the virus

Achieving these targets will require a significant scale-up of HIV testing and access treatment, care and support. It will also require focusing energies where the virus is being transmitted. By focusing effort on the top 20 countries for HIV prevalence and transmission, two lists that are nearly identical, 80 percent of those living with HIV can be reached. It is interesting to note that the United States appears on those lists at No. 9.

Faith communities have a vital role in the strategy to end the HIV epidemic by 2030. We have the capacity to create awareness, provide prevention education and fight stigma. We can also be points of care and support, providing opportunities for people to learn their HIV status, helping people get into treatment, and accompanying them and their loved ones on their journey with HIV.

It is clear we are finally at the tipping point in this epidemic and the thing about tipping points is they can go either way. The water certainly won't boil if you turn the burner off. In receiving the Arthur Ashe award at ESPN's ESPYs, NFL rookie, Michael Sam, reminded the audience of Ashe's wisdom: "Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." This wisdom also applies to how we will end the HIV epidemic. It's time to turn up the burners and get the waters boiling with more education, more advocacy, more outreach, more funding – more of all that it takes to get the job done.

The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer is the UCC's Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy representing the denomination at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.


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