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GlobalPost's John Donnelly and a team of reporters investigate what experts are calling a 'turning point' in the global fight to reduce HIV infection rates. Successes in southern African countries have produced valuable lessons on effective approaches to fight AIDS, lessons that need to be learned in US cities where infection rates remain persistently high — particularly among African-Americans. Meanwhile a political confrontation looms in Washington over critical funding which could threaten gains already made.

20121130 world aids day
A member of the Berlin gay community lights candles after a march to mark World AIDS Day on November 30, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Cities across the world are marking World AIDS Day, which officially takes place on December 1, with a variety of events. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

In AIDS fight, is it the beginning of the end?

We may be at a 'turning point' in the fight against AIDS. But on this World AIDS Day and beyond, it's up to us to make the turn.

BOSTON — Over the last year, something big changed in the fight against AIDS. The world started talking about the beginning of the end of the disease on a global scale.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began this conversation when she took the stage at the National Institutes of Health in November 2011 and declared, “Our efforts have helped set the stage for a historic opportunity, one that the world has today: to change the course of this pandemic and usher in an AIDS-free generation.”

This hope for an “AIDS-free generation” became a mantra for the International AIDS Conference held in Washington, DC in July, the first time it had been held on American soil in 22 years.

“Many of the people at the conference, and also the media and people following the conference, took to the idea,” said Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy at amfAR, an AIDS research foundation. “I think the tremendous hope that the conference communicated to people has really become a challenge.”

But on this World AIDS Day weekend, GlobalPost is continuing its year-long Special Report titled AIDS: A Turning Point by asking experts if this new discussion does, in fact, confirm that the world is at a turning point in the struggle against AIDS and HIV.

“If we don’t succeed, we've missed the greatest opportunity we've had in 32 years.”
~Mitchell Warren

“We’re at a deciding moment. Clearly we’ve made major advances on many fronts,” said Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. “Now the question is, are we going to take appropriate action?”

Indeed, the last year has been filled with news of scientific breakthroughs and marked, quantifiable progress. New tools, like the first over-the-counter HIV test approved by the FDA in July, have made HIV testing faster, cheaper, and more routine.

Researchers are developing new prevention methods, like a microbicide ring currently being tested in Africa, and Truvada, the first drug to be approved by the FDA as a preventative against HIV. Some US advocacy groups are learning from the successes of PEPFAR, and new prevention and education campaigns, like the USAID-funded male circumcision program in Tanzania, are making gains.

The numbers are starting to reflect these advancements. A UNAIDS report released last week found that between 2001 and 2011, HIV incidence decreased by 20 percent worldwide, and by more than 50 percent in 25 countries. Since 2005, the number of AIDS-related deaths has declined by almost one-third.

Both internationally and domestically, policy is also beginning to catch up to goals. Secretary Clinton released a PEPFAR Blueprint on November 29, which lays out specific goals for reaching an AIDS-free generation and road maps on how to reach these goals.

President Obama created the first-ever national HIV/AIDS strategy in 2010, and in 2009 he lifted travel restrictions on HIV-positive visitors traveling to the US.

The end of the travel ban enabled the US to host this year’s International AIDS Conference, which pushed the national AIDS strategy forward, said Chris Beyrer, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for AIDS Research and the incoming president of the International AIDS Society.

“One of the reasons we pushed hard to bring the conference back to the US was, indeed, to highlight the US epidemic,” he said. “The most visible and tangible outcome so far has been the continued engagement … of stakeholders working on trying to implement the national strategy.”

More from GlobalPost: A Daughter's Journey, Part I: Seeking answers on HIV/AIDS