Rallying the troops

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VETERANS of the war on AIDS wear the medal stamped “Durban” with pride. It was in that city, in 2000, that the most effective of the International AIDS Conferences was held. The field’s bigwigs agreed that everything possible should be done to make the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that had been invented a few years earlier available to all who needed them, and began to create the institutions that would distribute them.

In retrospect, it sounds an obvious thing to do. But in those days ARVs were costly, and ways of getting them to people in poor countries nearly non-existent. The ramp-up therefore took time, and deaths from AIDS continued to rise. According to UNAIDS, the United Nations agency charged with combating the disease, they peaked at 2m a year in 2005. Since then, though, they have almost halved, to around 1.1m a year. That is fewer than the 1.5m who die from viral hepatitis, a fact that would have astonished the delegates to Durban in 2000.

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