The HIV/AIDS epidemic has been a worldwide tragedy for decades now, but as we pause to reflect on the tremendous efforts made in the fight against HIV/AIDS this World AIDS Day, it's heartening to see those efforts are turning tragedies into triumphs. Science has come up with significant and effective drugs against the virus. More than 8 million people are currently receiving lifesaving AIDS treatments today, up from just 300,000 in 2002. And in less than two months, treatment with these antiretroviral (AVR) medications can dramatically improve the health of someone with AIDS — virtually bringing him or her back from death's door to a relatively healthy and productive life.

The Lazarus Effect

That transformation, and the effort to bring more ARV treatments to Africa — home to more than 60 percent of the world's HIV-infected population — is the subject of the remarkable HBO documentary, "The Lazarus Effect." The film focuses on the life of Constance "Connie" Mudena, who lost three of her children to AIDS before AVR treatment was accessible in her community of Lusaka, Zambia.

"I think by early to mid '90s, every black Zambian had had a family member, or at least a close friend or maybe somebody at work, who had had this ailment and, in those days, had died," says Dr. Mannasseh Phiri, a Zambian doctor who has pioneered the use of ARVs in his country. "And everything I had in my training as a doctor, in my experience, was not enough. There was nothing I could do to keep people alive."

Powerful but Costly Drugs

With the arrival of ARVs, Dr. Phiri said AIDS patients began to improve and hope began to rise. But the high cost of the drugs was a terrifying obstacle. "And we watched people die because they couldn't afford the medication," he remembers. "Can you imagine how desperate that is for the provider of the medication?"

"There was a lot of debate [about] what was more important: Should we pay the rent or buy the drugs, or should we buy food?" says Mudena. But she heard about a local clinic that was offering ARVs for free, and she became one of the first people enrolled in that program. 

Connie Mudena now supervises three clinics, focusing on HIV and working to remove the disease's stigma within her community. "For us, we take HIV as something we talk about freely," she says, "because we want people to talk about their experiences, to help the next person."

"She's like a magician," says Dr. Phiri. "She has a way of communicating to the level of people in the townships. If we had 10 Connies in this country, we'd go a very long way to encouraging people to stay on medication and to test [for HIV]."

Making Medication Affordable

Connie Mudena

Connie Mudena lost three of her children to AIDS before AVR treatment was accessible in her community of Lusaka, Zambia.

Organizations like The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund and (RED), the Global Fund's largest business sector funder, have been working to bring down the cost of ARV treatment. And though these efforts, it now costs about 40 cents per day to keep each AIDS patient in Africa alive.

"The way I was feeling (before ARV treatment), it was like I was already dead," says HIV patient Concillia Muhau, who is now HIV/AIDS peer educator at the Kanyama Clinic in Lusaka. "And I never had any hope that again I'd come back to life. There was nothing I could do for myself. I could not feed myself properly; I wasn't able to do anything for my daughter. And after I started my medication, it was like I was being resurrected from the bed that I was sleeping in."

One of the main goals of wide-ranging ARV treatment is to reduce the transmission of AIDS from mother to child, as in Mudena’s case. "If a woman is HIV positive and pregnant and remains healthy, very good immune system, very low virus, the chances of her transmitting to the baby are actually low," says Dr. Phiri. "But now we're bringing that even lower. Because now in Zambia, pregnant women going to an ante-natal clinic will get tested. If she's positive she gets told, but she also gets put on the program. Then she can take some medication toward the end of the pregnancy so that she minimizes the levels of virus, so that it doesn't transmit to the baby."

Partnering to Save Mother and Child

Coca-Cola is one of many corporations partnering with (RED), to raise awareness and money for the Global Fund's effort to virtually eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015. Starting last year, the company began a four-year program and committed more than $5 million U.S. to purchase ARV medicine and to fund awareness programs.

"It's encouraging to think that we could witness an AIDS-free generation during our lifetime," said Muhtar Kent, Coca-Cola's Chairman and CEO, about the program. "We're proud to help this effort and believe it complements the current work we're doing in many parts of the world to educate and prevent HIV/AIDS as well as provide support to people affected by this preventable and treatable disease."

About 3 million people across Africa are now receiving ARV treatment, but the work is far from finished. Nearly 4,000 people across the continent die each day from AIDS, and many rural areas still don't have access to the essential drugs. "We have people who are walking four days and three nights to get to the nearest clinic," says Connie. "I don't think that is easy access."

But for Connie Mudena — who gave birth to her first HIV-free child, a baby girl born in late November — there is still hope. "I know the experience that I've passed through," she said in the documentary, "and it's one terrible experience that I would not wish to happen to another person. So I think that also gives me the strength to encourage other people, to make sure — especially children — that they have them enrolled into treatment."

"HIV is something that we talk about freely now," she says, "because of the ARVs. And I think the impact has been seen with the huge numbers of people who are coming to access treatment right now. Because people are no longer scared to come to the clinic, because they want to live."

To learn more about Coca-Cola's long-standing commitment to fight HIV/AIDS in the communities where we operate please visit Our Company Page.