HIV treatment: the good news and the bad
The bad news. The numbers of persons 'on treatment' cannot be trusted altogether. The statistics are developed by governments in a vested interest in stating the highest possible estimates. To do otherwise might show incompetence in the use of (mainly external) funding. The numbers also tend to reflect the number of those who were placed on treatment, and not those who later stopped treatment for one reason on another.
But even if the numbers were more trustworthy, there are other concerns. AIDS treatment and care is lifelong. To keep these millions of persons on treatment in the future requires a vast and ongoing investment. The World Health Organization is considering revising its treatment guidelines on account of studies that indicate earlier initiation of treatment increases life-expectancy. More HIV-positive persons will fall into the category of those in need of treatment, and meeting this new demand will add to the already soaring costs. In addition, some of those currently on first-line treatment will develop drug resistance and need to switch to (more expensive) second-line drugs. And last but not at all least, millions of persons continue to be infected by HIV, meaning that the 'treatment pool' will grow larger and larger in the coming years.
The old questions keep coming back: is this magnitude of spending on HIV/AIDS treatment ethically justified? Is it justified when there are other diseases and conditions, causing greater numbers of deaths, but which do not attract nearly the same level of political and financial support? Why not devote greater attention to HIV prevention research or prevention strategies that may help reduce the rate of new infections?
This is becoming a dramatic example of 'hell being paved by good intentions.' Back a few years ago, we had the unacceptable situation of Africans routinely dying of untreated AIDS, while North Americans and Europeans accessed antiretrovirals and went on with their lives. It was a striking case of global health inequality, and no one with any sense of solidarity could fail to be moved by it. But in the process of trying to improve the situation, something else, vaguely Frankensteinian, has emerged. Billions of dollars will need to be spent to keep the (growing) millions of HIV-infected on treatment. This might not be sustainable, and all the spending might not be proportional or fair, but it would also be unwise to stop financing global AIDS treatment programs now that they have been started. Halting treatment would not only spell death for those living with HIV/AIDS, it could also mean creation of new drug-resistant strains of HIV, making prevention efforts more difficult than ever.