When I met my first partner, Tom Leishman in 1985, this terrible disease barely had a name. On our second date, over dinner, Tom told me that he had “It.”
I knew what “It” was. Everyone knew what “It” was, even if they didn’t like to talk about it. We also knew people were dying from “It”.
Tom said that if I didn’t want to pursue the relationship any further, he understood. I told him that “It” would be a damn silly reason to abandon something that might turn out to be true love.
In 1996, this horrible disease reduced my 6’2” 200 pound athlete partner to less than 100 pounds.
In June of that year, he died in my arms.
Thankfully, the world responded to the terrible “It” of 1985 – the disease we now know as AIDS. And many of people who led that response are here in the room tonight. As a result of passionate engagement and research, new drugs have given hope – and life – to millions.
In the early 1990s, infection rates in some sub-Saharan countries were estimated as high as 1 in 3 adults. AIDS threatened to destabilize societies. It created millions of orphans and brought economic development to a screeching halt. Even a decade ago, AIDS was – in many countries – still a death sentence.
But the international community did not accept that there was nothing we could do. We did not accept that we would lose an entire generation. In an amazing demonstration of hope, of love, and of commitment to human life, we came together.
We said enough is enough. And, today, things have changed.
Around the world, new HIV infections are down almost 33% since 2003. Deaths from AIDS are down 30% since they peaked in 2005.
Last year, PEPFAR supported programs led to the birth of the one millionth HIV-free baby to an HIV positive mother.
And it is due to people like you – like Mark Dybul at the Global Fund, and Ambassador Birx throughout her distinguished career and now as the United States’ Global AIDS Coordinator – to sustained efforts like that of former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative, and to great gatherings like the International AIDS Conference where we can share ideas, research, and policy best practices that these advances have been possible.
But there is still more we must do.
In both Australia and the United States new HIV infections are on the rise, particularly among young men. Those of us who remember the funerals of the 80s and 90s have no wish to repeat that era.
Ninety percent of new HIV infections are in the developing world. Sixty percent of those cases are in sub-Saharan and southern Africa. These facts are both alarming and unacceptable.
It falls to us to ensure that the next generation will not repeat the same mistakes. And that means educating our young people about prevention and transmission. It means sharing best practices. It means supporting the research that will lead to prevention and a cure. It means that all countries must bolster their commitments to fighting HIV and AIDS through organizations like the Global Fund.
An AIDS free generation is possible. It is within our grasp.
It should be – it must be – the legacy of all those we have lost.
We owe it to those we have lost to ensure that theirs is a legacy of love.
That their remembrance is a cure.
And that we commit this terrible disease to the pages of history so that no one else loses a partner, a child, a parent, or a friend to AIDS.