Media and the HIV Fight

As someone who has made a career in the media industry, I’ve seen up close how HIV/AIDS has been portrayed from the beginning. In the early years of the disease, AIDS was a death sentence. Then, for those who lived with it, the stigma was a terrible burden. Now, though, it’s a treatable and better-understood disease, something you can live with for a long time. At least, that’s the narrative that has been told here in the U.S.

World AIDS Day was last week, offering an opportunity to reflect on the state of play globally. While domestically we’ve benefited tremendously from medical advances, this disease continues to affect women, men and children in poor countries around the world-the millions of AIDS orphans and decimated working populations in Africa are evidence of this catastrophic effect.

Today, almost 6,000 people die of AIDS every day, with another 6,800 people infected daily with HIV. In the face of staggering numbers like these, for two decades the fight against AIDS seemed unwinnable.

However, there are signs of real hope, due to innovative global efforts that are gaining real traction. In 2002, with a founding investment from the U.S. government, the world came together to create a significant instrument to focus attention and resources on our three deadliest diseases: The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Global Fund, together with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), announced last week that their work has put more than 3.7 million people on AIDS medicine over the past seven years. The Global Fund and Pepfar are not only working to treat HIV/AIDS but also prevent it from spreading. They have also made great progress in fighting the stigma that made it so hard to treat — and such a painfully lonely disease for many people — just 10 years ago.

Hope is evident both in statistics and on the ground. For the first time, global HIV infection rates are slowing down. What’s more, at the current rate, by 2015, it’s a real possibility that no mother will have to fear passing on the disease to her child because treatment will be available to her.

These statistics are coming to life in places like Zambia, where a patient seeking treatment is now more likely to find an empty hospital bed than AIDS patients two to a bed crowding the hospital. Statistics are also coming to life in Ethiopia, where funding for AIDS programs has helped to build a strong and growing healthcare workforce.

For the millions of people that organizations such as the Global Fund help, the world’s investments are leading to real results.

This tremendous progress is happening in large part through partnerships.

Wealthy countries, led by the U.S. government, are helping resource-poor countries prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. The private sector is pushing for change by engaging the public through initiatives such as Product (RED), which works in partnership with leading companies to create products, and then donates a portion of their sales to the Global Fund. More and more non-governmental organizations are channeling critical resources and support to the places that need it most. But curbing the AIDS epidemic is only sustainable through expanded public and private investment.

My colleagues in the media have played a key role in waging this fight over the past 30 years, from helping to initially bring the world’s attention to this disease, to breaking down barriers that have led us to where we are today. Given the real progress and signs of hope we are seeing, this is no time for media to look away.

It is time for the media in the Western world to redouble its efforts and move forward with a new message of optimism and hope, while also informing and encouraging both the public and decision makers to remain committed to the cause. If we are ever to reach our goal of living in a world free from HIV/AIDS, it is essential that the media, with all of its influence and powers of persuasion, continues to play its part to lead the effort in the fight against AIDS.

Tom Freston is a principal in Firefly3, a media industry consulting and investment firm. Freston is also chairman of the ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization for global poverty issues. He also serves on the boards of Product (RED) and DreamWorks Animation. Previously, Freston was president of Viacom and CEO of MTV Networks.