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Choke on it: Peak Free Lunch at HIV Inc?


There have been several mentions recently of significant cuts in HIV funding, including PEPFAR and the Global Fund for Aids, TB and Malaria. It is said that funding could be cut by several billion dollars per annum, even as much as one third of all funding. Should we be worried?

According to UNAIDS, funding available for low and middle income countries has grown from $4.8 billion in 2000 to $19.5 billion in 2016. During that time, deaths from Aids have dropped from a peak of 1.9 million people in 2005 to 1 million in 2016.

The number of new infections has gone from about 4.7 million in 1995 to 1.8 million in 2016 and the number accessing treatment has gone from 685,000 people in 2000 to 19.5m people in 2016. The fear is that the number of deaths will cease to drop, or even increase, as the number of people on treatment flattens out or drops.

The gains over the last 15 years are certainly impressive, especially the increases in funding. But the correlation between increases in funding and improvements in HIV indicators is not so clear. Drops in rates of new infections had started many years before, and even death rates had peaked and started to decline before funds such as PEPFAR and GPATM would have had much impact.

In fact, figures for new transmissions in some high prevalence countries started to drop in the 80s (Uganda) and 90s (Kenya and Tanzania), long before big funding and large treatment programs were available. By the 2000s, several countries with serious epidemics were already seeing a substantial downward trend (Zimbabwe), with only an occasional upward blip, such as that experienced in Uganda.

Here are some ways that a lot more could be achieved with a lot less money:

  • Trace the possible source of every new infection; every new infection is potentially the source of more than one further infection, so failure to trace sources represents one of the biggest missed opportunities of the last 30 years of providing HIV services
  • Offer non-HIV healthcare services to those who test negative (as an incentive to testing), eg, free treatment for conditions other than HIV, including STIs
  • Re-examine the relative contributions of non-sexual and sexual infection routes for HIV, which must vary considerably from country to country, even within countries
  • Re-integrate HIV clinics and services into other health facilities, getting rid of expensive parallel HIV-specific structures
  • Distribute funding at a level closer to people on the ground, such as HIV positive people and those providing services
  • Re-direct some of the remaining funding to improving safety in certain service areas, eg, maternal health
  • ‘No blame’ investigations into serious outbreaks, especially among those whose risk should be low, eg, maternal health beneficiaries, virgins, infants, etc
  • Drop failing programs, such as abstinence-only and other behavioral programs that are aimed solely at sexual behavior
  • Listen to leaders who are calling for positive change, for things to be done differently, for a re-think of some of the strategies that have been failing for a long time

Big reductions in HIV funding could be used as an opportunity to make positive changes in the way the remaining funding is spent, and allow each dollar to go much further. Country leaders need to think differently, rather than chaining themselves to strategies that have been failing for years. Massive HIV NGOs and other institutions are too far removed from individual epidemics to be able to see differences between countries and within countries.

What we should worry about is stasis: static thinking in HIV institutions, static research focus in universities, static behavior in health facilities, static attitudes that have not moved on from the sensationalist finger-pointing of the 1980s. Static or falling funding is irrelevant so long as HIV spending remains independent of what’s happening on the ground. A radical drop in funding may bring about the very changes that have been wanting for decades.

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