I recently sat in on an inspiring reception at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, where The Global Fund (in partnership with Coca-Cola and Charlize Theron) announced “The Big Push” campaign to defeat AIDS, TB, and malaria.
 
So what’s “The Big Push”?
 
It’s been more than 30 years since clinicians diagnosed the first case of AIDS, a disease that swiftly developed into a pandemic with widespread, global implications. Since the early 1980s, more than 30 million people have died of AIDS, and today more than 30 million are living with HIV. These numbers are so large, they’re tough for me to even fathom.
 
Our first response to the pandemic was to scramble for a “silver bullet” – governments, corporates, and foundations invested billions of dollars in research to find a vaccine, cure, or treatment. While these investments surely paid off—more than 8 million people are currently on life-saving AIDS drugs—we’ve learned that the silver bullet approach is unrealistic…new HIV infections have far outpaced our ability to provide treatment, and it is going to take a “combination approach” to really turn the tide on AIDS.
 
To me, The Big Push ushers in a new era in the epidemic’s history, one that will tackle prevention just as much as treatment.



hiv aids awareness


The Big Push kicks off on the heels of recent scientific discoveries that have given us real hope to end AIDS in the course of my lifetime (yes, that truly is a “big” statement). A series of clinical trials have demonstrated that the same drugs used to treat AIDS can also be used to prevent HIV. Given past failures in preventing new infections, this discovery is nothing less than a game-changer.
 
So why is The Global Fund using a word as dramatic as ‘push’ in its campaign? Shouldn’t it just be ‘The Big News’ or ‘The Big Discovery’? No. Since the beginning of the pandemic, stigma has plagued our ability to respond effectively to AIDS. We have struggled to normalize conversations about something as sensitive as HIV/AIDS, to end discrimination against those living with the disease, and to effectively support the populations that are most severely afflicted. All of these failures have stifled our ability to reach the people who need our help the most.
 
In choosing the word “push,” The Global Fund is acknowledging that it’ll take a team effort to end AIDS. We’ll have to raise the funds necessary to manufacture and distribute more drugs, and, most importantly, we’ll have to work hard to ensure that those who need these drugs are educated, motivated, and supported to access them.
 
Here’s where you and I come in.
 
Changing the culture around a disease is a tall task, but the task will be easier if each of us plays our part. Here are some tactics that can make our efforts more effective:
 
1.    Use existing channels. I think Coca-Cola has done some really good work that highlights this point. Over the past couple of years, the company has dedicated one of its greatest assets—its expertise in supply chain management—to improve the distribution of ARVs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of building something new, Coca-Cola has used its distribution capability to leverage a powerful blow against the epidemic. Each of us can follow in these footsteps by thinking about how our own strengths and our own networks (however large or small) can be used to contribute to the fight against AIDS.

2.    Prepare socially relevant messages. If we are trying to change behaviors, we have to meet people “where they are,” and messages need to be packaged and delivered in a way that is palatable. In Washington DC, I run an organization that trains NCAA athletes to use sports as a tool to engage youth in dialogue about HIV/AIDS, healthy relationships, and positive life skills. Through our organization (The Grassroot Project), we’ve learned that young people in DC learn best when they are the ones driving the discussion. Instead of lecturing them, our athletes see themselves as facilitators. Another socially relevant approach to fighting the epidemic is through the use of mobile technology. One example is a new Coca-Cola supported game called TH(RED), which puts raising funds and awareness in the hands of anyone with a mobile phone. In today’s world, I don’t know of anything more socially relevant than a cell phone!

3.    Know that AIDS is everyone’s fight. HIV/AIDS is the most polarizing health issue I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. It has affected people of every race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and gender, but it has also ironically caused a lot of division and finger pointing. If AIDS doesn’t discriminate, why should we?

It's our job to make sure that 30 years from now we are not looking at another 30 million new cases of HIV/AIDS. Science tells us that that number can be 0, but we've got to come together to make it happen. Are you ready to join me in The Big Push?

Tyler Spencer is the Founder and CEO of The Grassroot Project, an organization based in Washington DC, that uses NCAA student-athletes to educate local teens about health and HIV/AIDS. He represents DC in the city’s Global Shapers Hub, which is sponsored by Coca-Cola in partnership with the World Economic Forum. Follow Tyler and his athletes on Twitter @GrassrootDC and on Facebook at The Grassroot Project.