World Aids day: We have ‘never been closer’ to medical breakthrough

As we mark world Aids day, can the EU invest better to fight HIV/Aids, ask Linda McAvan and Theresa Griffin.

Written by Linda McAvan and Theresa Griffin on 1 December 2015

As the European year for development draws to a close this month, we can take time to recognise the significant global development achievements that have been made in the last three decades.

Malaria is on the retreat, polio has been eradicated from all but two countries in the world, and the rollout of immunisation programmes and vaccines has been one of the biggest public health achievements of the last 15 years.

It seems fitting that, in the year that European and world leaders committed to the eradication of malaria, HIV/Aids and TB as part of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, the Nobel Prize for medicine will be awarded this month to honour the discovery of new therapies to treat parasitic diseases such as malaria and river blindness; drugs that save thousands of lives every year.

With such strides being made to improve health around the globe, on world Aids day, what is the state of progress in overcoming HIV/Aids worldwide, and how can we – the EU institutions, national governments, and the wider development community – do better?

For the first time in global health history, as part of the millennium development goals (MDGs), the world has reached a global treatment target in time: providing antiretroviral therapy (ART) to 15 million people by 2015. 73 per cent of pregnant women living with HIV now have access to antiretroviral medicines to prevent transmission of HIV to their babies; at the same time new HIV infections among children have been reduced by 58 per cent since 2000.

Despite this progress, new HIV infections continue – two million in 2014 alone, a shocking 220,000 of which were children. Europe needs to continue to be a strong backer of organisations like the Global Fund, to continue and expand access to life-saving medicines.

But while the rollout of ARTs means that the disease is no longer a death sentence for millions of people, we are still waiting for a breakthrough that will tip the battle decisively in our favour. If we are to end the HIV/Aids epidemic by 2030 as we are committed to do, then we need to equip ourselves with new and better treatment and prevention tools.

This can only be achieved through support for ground-breaking health research. Research is currently being conducted that could potentially lead to new ways to treat children living with disease, or to break the cycle of mother-to-child transmissions.

We have never been closer to what could be the biggest game changer in global health in the next 30 years – a vaccine for HIV with the potential to save millions of lives each year. If we are to make this breakthrough, researchers working in labs in Europe and in sub-Saharan Africa need our support.

The European Commission has been among the frontrunners of efforts to support global health innovation in recent years. However, European public funding for research into HIV/Aids, TB and malaria has fluctuated in recent years.

As parliamentarians, we will continue to advocate for EU leadership on development assistance, and to reverse the trend of declining global health innovation spending. We can work across committees to leverage the potential of the innovation agenda to bring tangible benefits to people living with HIV – in Europe and the rest of the world.

We need to learn from new and innovative product development models, and how we can support them with an enabling environment. We can look to ongoing processes – for example the annual budget cycle, and particularly the coming mid-term review of the EU’s seven years budget – for opportunities to invest in the fight against HIV/Aids and other poverty-related diseases.

We will not defeat HIV/Aids tomorrow, but if we are ambitious and make this investment now, then in 15 or 20 years, who knows, we could be celebrating world Aids day together with a Nobel Prize for a vaccine or cure for HIV achieved through European research.