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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.

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.

This convergence of science, advocacy, and policy have created a huge opportunity, said Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, an HIV prevention advocacy organization. But, he added, both around the world and here at home, the fight’s not over, and the stakes are monumental.

“The real truth is going to be, can we fund these initiatives and can we actually implement according to the plan?” said Warren. If we don’t succeed, he added, “we've missed the greatest opportunity we've had in 32 years. If we don't do it in 2013, it's going to be harder and harder every subsequent year, because we have the golden opportunity in front of us.”

Taking full advantage of this opportunity is going to be a challenge, according to a quarterly progress report released jointly by AVAC and amfAR in November. The report says that “overall progress remains too slow,” and current funding is not sufficient for an optimal AIDS response. “The opportunity to move toward the epidemic’s ‘end game’ is real,” the report states, “but we’ll need to ‘up our game’ if we hope to get there.”

Last week’s UNAIDS report also cites room for improvement. The number of new HIV infections in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, has increased by 35 percent in the last decade, according to the report. There have also been other failures, like the failed circumcision campaign in Swaziland, and the nearly $1.5 billion backlog in AIDS spending earlier this year.

An Attention Deficit

But outside of the AIDS advocacy community, the high stakes and the work ahead isn’t much of a topic of conversation these days. Certainly not in the mainstream media, or at least not in any sustained way.

Leading up to the July conference, major news organizations around the country explored and evaluated the international battle against AIDS. Big-name publications like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and NPR published pieces about AIDS research, treatment as prevention, and the possibility of an AIDS-free generation.

And as more than 20,000 government officials, activists, scientists, and spokespeople poured into the US capital, the social media stratosphere was buzzing with conversation. Between July 20 and July 27, the week of the conference, the hashtag #AIDS or #HIV appeared in 30,579 tweets, according to Topsy, a Twitter analytics website. 

The next week, that number dropped to 12,676. And the week after, it nearly halved again. Fewer articles showed up in news publications as Washington, DC emptied. GlobalPost was no exception—our coverage slowed, too.

After all, outside of big events like the conference and World AIDS Day, there’s no news hook. And in the meantime, the country turned its attention to big-ticket items like the election and the fiscal cliff.

Warren stressed that the media needs to play a watchdog role as we look toward the beginning of the end of HIV.

“Among the things that need to happen moving forward is a new level of accountability. Are we making progress month by month, quarter by quarter? I think the media has a huge role to play.”

Warren added that keeping up a public conversation is crucial to the movement’s success.

“You name a critical moment in this epidemic and civil society has been there,” he said. “And so if we’re going to push all of ourselves over the finish line, civil society is not a bystander.”