Today, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day.

When [Jesus] had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  (John 11:43–44)

An estimated 39 million people worldwide have died from HIV and AIDS since its identification in the early 1980s, leading many to still believe HIV and AIDS to be death sentences. So often when we think about HIV and AIDS we think about the dying. But we don’t have to anymore – HIV no longer has to be synonymous with death.

Since the advent of antiretroviral therapy in 1996, the nearly dead have literally been brought back to life as a result of this revolutionary treatment, causing many in HIV and AIDS services to adopt the phrase “the Lazarus effect,” describing the treatment’s resurrecting power. People are now living with HIV and AIDS and are no longer dying at the rates in which we saw during the early years of the epidemic. In fact, today there are approximately 37 million people living with the virus, nearly as many people who have died from HIV- and AIDS-related illnesses in the last 34 years.

But there is still much work to be done.

Of the nearly 37 million people living with HIV globally, only 43 percent of them have access to these life-saving medications, leaving the lives of more than half of the world’s HIV-infected population to chance. Despite having the science and medicine to relegate HIV and AIDS to a chronic disease, access to treatment remains the common variable in turning the tide in the epidemic.


Imagine if Lazarus didn’t have access to God’s mercy and grace? Imagine if he was cut off from the healing power of Jesus Christ because of his race, culture, religion or socio-economic status. Lazarus’ tomb would not be empty, Martha and Mary would still be mourning and the promise of tomorrow would be uncertain. The Lazarus effect is about much more than life-resurrecting treatment. The Lazarus effect is about the restoration of families, economic empowerment and the future of the world as we know it.

When HIV infection goes untreated, the burden on family morale and infrastructure increases, the ability for one or all members of the family to earn income is jeopardized, and investment in the future ceases as families prepare only for what seems to be an inevitable end. Therefore, access to treatment becomes access to hope, access to prosperity and access to the future. HIV is the thief that has come only to steal, kill and destroy, but the Lazarus effect is the fulfillment of God’s promise that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

So while getting to zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths is still the ultimate goal, this World AIDS Day is all about fast-tracking the progress being made to double the number of people on life-saving antiretroviral treatment by 2020 to end AIDS by 2030. Jesus wept at the thought of the end of life for Lazarus so Jesus acted to restore the hopes and dreams of tomorrow, not just for Lazarus but for his family and his community. Today let us act in the same way so that the only end in sight is not that of life, but that of death. Let us recommit our living to ending AIDS.

Ulysses Burley
Ulysses Burley is program associate for the ELCA Strategy on HIV and AIDS.

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