This post originally appeared in The Australian on 1st December, 2015.
When AIDS reared it’s ugly head in the 1980s it was the disease of the gay; a physical infection for a perceived moral imperfection. I saw dozens upon dozens of my friends contract the disease, and then die while the world watched on, uncertain of how to act.
As dozens turned into hundreds, then thousands and then millions, the world’s engine of compassion slowly cranked into gear.
As global apathy turned to action, my despair turned to hope – and by the turn of the millennium I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, my heart is set on seeing an end to AIDS in my lifetime.
Some 30 years on, ahead of World AIDS Day on Tuesday, 1 December and prior to my Australian tour, I wanted to take the time to shine a light on how far we’ve come in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
After a peak in 2005, the last decade has see a fall in AIDS-related deaths by 30%. Much of that success is because access to antiretroviral therapy, particularly in poor countries has increased from 4% to 40%. Much of this success is due to the work of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria.
While the search continues for a cure and a vaccine, it’s now been shown that early access to HIV testing and treatment helps prevent new infections. Since 2000, infection rates have fallen 36% in countries in which the Global Fund works.
When I look back at the change in attitude we have seen since the 1980s, and the impact of action that we have seen since 2000, my heart is full of hope for an AIDS free future.
Yet, as we turn our attention to our progress, it’s important to remember that there are more than 27,000 people in Australia, and more than 35 million people around the world, still living with HIV. There is still more work to be done.
By far the majority of people impacted by HIV and AIDS around the world are in low and middle-income countries; particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS, like poverty, discriminates. It disproportionately targets the poor, the vulnerable, and those without access to the prevention and treatment that the disease requires.
With so much progress made, it’s important for us to maintain our focus and support.
However it seems that our two countries are now on quite different paths in terms of the priority given to aid funding. The UK Government recently legislated to maintain its aid investment at the UN recommended level of 0.7% of gross national income. In contrast, Australia aid spending is set to reach 0.22% next year. This will be the lowest ever level of Australian aid although, we are more hopeful with the new Malcolm Turnbull led government who have already made some positive changes. They include appointing Steve Ciobo as Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and helping to lead the region to rid the Asia Pacific of malaria by 2030 by recently committing $18 million to a new Regional Malaria and Other Communicable Disease Threats Trust Fund.
Still, this isn’t the Australia that I know. It’s the lucky country, not just because of its unsurpassable beauty but because it’s filled with people that look out for their neighbours, no matter what.
And what do these cuts mean for important initiatives such as the Global Fund and in turn the global effort to the end of AIDS? In 2016, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will ask donors, including Australia, for increased support for their life-saving programs for the period 2017-19. Australia’s contributions to the Global Fund have already helped to bring about remarkable reductions in new HIV cases, deaths from malaria and access to tuberculosis treatments, especially in the Asia-Pacific. Increasing Australia’s contribution to the Global Fund will save lives, and is a smart investment in health security and peaceful development of fragile and vulnerable countries and regions.
When I saw the beginning of the AIDS crisis, it’s fair to say that I lost heart. But, I knew that I had to help. I volunteered, I raised my voice, and eventually started the Elton John Aids Foundation. My commitment to this cause, and the commitment of people all over the world was reflected in commitments from world leaders, and together we have seen great change.
My call now, is for Australians to go and do likewise. To make your concern for your future and the future of your region known. To stand up for the great work done in your name through Australian aid. To raise your voice, and make sure that your leaders know that Australian aid is part of what makes your country so great.
The progress that we’ve seen around the world in tackling AIDS promises a brighter future; for the 27,000 Australians and the 35 million people living with HIV around the world. And, you’ll play your part in that story of human progress through Australian Aid.
So, are you for Australian aid? I’m proud to say I am. See you soon Australia!