Message of WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Shin Young-soo, on World AIDS Day, 1 December 2011

1 December 2011

The first known HIV cases were reported 30 years ago.

Since then, millions of people have become infected with HIV, thousands have died needlessly and 15 million are now living with HIV.

Today is the 24th World AIDS Day.

Many of the previous World AIDS Days were met with fear and with depressing figures of rising rates of HIV and unchecked transmission creating endless suffering.

Today's World AIDS Day has a very different feel.

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero".

Zero New HIV Infections, Zero AIDS-Related Deaths and Zero Discrimination.

Getting to zero? Is this really possible?

Is it hoping for too much?

Can we really achieve this?

I believe that "Getting to Zero" in the Western Pacific Region is not a dream.

It is an ambitious but achievable goal.

It is a goal that we should pursue vigorously – as vigorously as we have pursued all the other goals that have been set – and mostly met in this Region – over the past few years.

Let me take each one of the three zero targets and demonstrate how – if we can avoid becoming complacent and can continue to invest in HIV prevention and treatment – the three "Getting to Zero" targets might be achieved in our Region.

Zero new infections.

It sounds like a tall order.

Yet in Asia and the Pacific, the number of newly infected people has decreased by nearly 20% in the past 10 years.

There are pockets around the Region where the trend has not always been downwards – and, indeed, some areas where we are seeing alarming rises.

But we know that prevention works.

Messages about protection, condoms and the need to support most-at-risk populations are getting through and are having an impact.

Cleaner blood supplies and better hospital infection control have dramatically cut the number of people being infected through blood or unclean needles.

The early detection of HIV infections in pregnant women and the availability of anti-retroviral medication to prevent mother-to-child transmission have significantly increased the number of children born free of HIV in our Region.

So getting to zero new infections may be possible – if we continue to implement the many successful programmes initiated around the Region.

And if we strengthen our programmes to ensure that the most-at-risk, hard-to-reach populations receive the support they need to protect themselves from infection.

Zero AIDS-related deaths? A dream?

I think not. Advances in treatment and the development of new techniques mean that HIV does not have to be a death sentence. HIV is treatable.

Millions of HIV-infected people across our Region now have access to treatment and are living long, productive lives.

The number of infected people starting on antiretroviral treatment in our Region has increased 10 times since 2001.

But only half of the 470 000 people living with HIV in our Region who need lifelong treatment are currently receiving it.

Medically, it is possible to aim for zero AIDS-related deaths.

But logistically, politically and socially we still have a long way to go.

HIV care and treatment across the Region rely heavily on international financing.

In the current financial climate, the threat that these international resources may soon dry up is very real.

We must urgently find ways to reduce the cost of treatment and to ensure that there are sufficient national funds to finance sustainable treatment programmes.

We must work together to achieve this if we are to get to zero AIDS-related deaths – and, indeed, if we are to achieve zero new infections.

Effective treatment for people living with HIV does not just save their lives – it saves countless others too by reducing the risk that they will pass the virus to other people.

Good care and treatment, rapid and easy access to antiretrovirals is a must – for infected people, for their families and for our communities.

And finally zero discrimination.

Colleagues and friends, it remains a sad fact that whether we talk about vulnerable populations or the wider population, HIV remains cloaked in stigma and discrimination.

Stigma and discrimination remain at the heart of our challenge to address the HIV epidemic.

We have far to go before all our societies can talk openly and honestly about HIV.

And we have far to go before all our communities are willing to support the people most at risk of HIV infection – marginalised groups who often live in the fringes of society hidden in stigma and discrimination, the human story behind HIV.

Together we can and must work towards the vision of "Getting to Zero" – zero new HIV infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination. I look forward to continuing on this journey of hope with all our partners and to a day when we can proclaim HIV "at zero".