Shrinking donor funds looms over global AIDS conference

21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), Durban, South Africa International AIDS Society/Abhi Indrarajan

A key concern weighing heavily on those attending this week’s global conference on AIDS is the diminishing donor support to fight the communicable disease, which has claimed an estimated 35 million lives since the beginning of the epidemic.

“That’s on everybody’s mind now — how to continue facing the epidemic with the shrinking resources,” said Eran Bendavid, a core faculty member at Stanford Health Policy and assistant professor at Stanford Medicine attending the conference in Durban, South Africa.

Donor government funding to support HIV efforts in low- and middle-income countries fell for the first time in 2015, decreasing from $8.6 billion in 2014 to $7.5 billion last year, according to a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation and UNAIDS.

Funding for HIV treatment declined for 13 of 14 major donor governments, with the U.S. continuing to provide more donor funding for HIV than any other country or organization.

“There’s a sense of panic about how we’re going to fill the shortfall in funding,” Bendavid said. “All the major donors are here, PEPFAR, the Global Fund, and everyone is saying `We need more to continue the fight.’

“But, in my mind,” Bendavid continued, “the conversation that is mostly missing is the one between the organizations on the front lines and the national ministries of health and finance. See what they can do to get domestic resources to fill the gap.”

PEPFAR — the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Release — is the U.S. government initiative to help those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

Bendavid, an infectious disease physician, joins 18,000 global leaders, researchers, activists and front-line health workers attending the conference July 18-22.

The U.N. General Assembly last month pledged to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. But more than half of the nearly 37 million people around the world infected with HIV still have no access to the antiretroviral therapy that is saving so many lives.

U.S. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on the opening day of AIDS2016 that when the conference was last held in Durban 16 years ago, less than 1 percent of all people living with HIV in developing countries had access to treatment.

“Today, the world has proven that when we come together, we can transform lives,” Ban said, noting that of the 36.7 million people living with HIV today, about 46 percent of infected adults have access to antiretroviral treatment.

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“In addition, medicines are more effective and less toxic, technology allows diagnosis in 20 minutes or less, generic medicines reduced the cost of treatment to just a dollar a day and great international finance has been made available,” Ban said.

Still, the secretary-general warned, “the gains are inadequate — and fragile,” when you consider that more than half of all people living with HIV still lack access to treatment.

Bendavid, who spoke by telephone from Durban, gave a symposium at the conference on Tuesday that summarizes his research and provides his conclusions on the most effective approaches to use donor resources.

He said the while the global burden of noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, is greater than HIV, malaria, or TB, the interventions available to combat infectious diseases are more cost-effective. 

“Basically, the resource constraints are forcing us to think carefully about what to invest in, and we want to invest in what works,” Bendavid said, adding that donor funding typically goes straight to the disease rather than the local health system infrastructure.

“The scarce donor resources should not be directed towards interventions that are either inefficacious or costly,” he argued. “The opportunity cost of investing in costly or ineffective interventions is very high when you consider the millions who could benefit from inexpensive, simple interventions such as bed nets and drugs for TB.”

He conceded that he typically gets push back on this line of reasoning.

“But when you’re talking about what you can do with very limited resources, investing in noncommunicable diseases, in my mind, jeopardizes the premise of donor funding: There are many people who would be happy to shut down PEPFAR and the Global Fund if they were shown to be ineffective.”

He published a paper earlier this year that found the U.S. government has invested $1.4 billion in HIV prevention programs that promote sexual abstinence and marital fidelity. But there is no evidence that the programs have been effective at changing sexual behavior and reducing HIV Risk.

Bendavid said his presentation at the symposium was received with a mix of understanding and concern.

“People mentioned that funding health systems could have averted Ebola, and that the fight against HIV needs to address health systems,” he said. “I agree, but also think governments should step up and help fill some of those gaps.”