HIV/AIDS has never existed in isolation. By its very nature it makes people susceptible to a host of diseases and conditions. HIV infection fans the flames of other epidemics, complicating treatment and placing an overwhelming burden on many of the world’s most fragile healthcare systems.

A public health crisis

Of the nearly 37 million people living with HIV today, more than one-third are also infected with tuberculosis (TB). TB has become the leading cause of death among people living with HIV/AIDS — accounting for one in three AIDS-related deaths in 2015.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2.3 million people living with HIV are co-infected with hepatitis C. With overlapping modes of transmission and affected populations, HIV and hepatitis C co-infection is a double scourge. If left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.   

People with HIV also have a substantially higher risk of developing several types of cancer compared with people without HIV of the same age, including Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung and anal cancer. People with HIV are particularly vulnerable to infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the cause of virtually all cervical cancer cases in women.

“It is research, of course, that holds the key to developing a cure that could enable us to bring the global AIDS epidemic to an end.”

A call to action

The flip side of this deadly ripple effect is that programs designed primarily to combat HIV have benefited public health and health systems more broadly. The world’s largest program responding to the AIDS epidemic — the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR — provides life-saving treatment to close to 10 million people with HIV. It also provides care and support for 5.5 million orphans and vulnerable children, as well as HIV testing, counseling, prevention, education and training. Since 2005 PEPFAR has provided more than $1.5 billion for HIV/TB programs and has brought molecular diagnostic technology to developing countries with high rates of TB.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria provides more than 20 percent of the world’s financing for HIV programs. It is also working to reduce the burden of TB among people with HIV through routine screening, diagnosis and treatment. In countries where the Global Fund invests, the number of deaths from TB declined 31 percent between 2000 and 2015.  

Forty percent of the Fund’s budget supports the development of sustainable health systems, which will have a far-reaching effect on public health in many parts of the developing world.

The future of treatment

What’s more, research on HIV/AIDS has been a testing ground for new concepts and technologies in drug development, diagnostics and disease prevention. Many new and experimental treatments for conditions such as cancer, hepatitis, and heart disease have arisen from research on HIV/AIDS. To cite just one dramatic example, in 2012, a young girl with acute leukemia wasn’t responding to conventional treatments and was on the brink of death. She was then given an experimental treatment using an anti-cancer gene that was delivered to her cells using disabled HIV as a carrier. Within weeks she was in remission and she remains cancer-free.

It is research, of course, that holds the key to developing a cure that could enable us to bring the global AIDS epidemic to an end. Thankfully, organizations are pooling their resources for research initiatives aimed at developing the scientific basis of a cure by the end of 2020.

A cure for HIV would potentially avert the more than 1 million deaths from AIDS-related causes that occur each year. And by removing a catalyst for the spread of many of the world’s deadly diseases, a cure could have a giant ripple effect resulting in many millions of lives extended and saved, and greatly reduced burdens on healthcare systems worldwide.