Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, a time for us to remember the millions we’ve lost in the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, even as we take heart in how far we’ve progressed toward defeating the virus. Indeed, strides toward a vaccine and even a cure have accelerated at a stunning pace in recent years, and preventative innovations like Truvada-as-PrEP are poised to further reduce new infections. It is not an exaggeration at the end of 2015 to say that we are within reach of an “AIDS-Free Generation.”
How we got here is the focus of Countdown to Zero, an informative, well-paced documentary from VICE and HBO that airs tonight at 9 p.m. While the film opens with the expected—and still emotionally wrenching—footage of mostly gay men wasting away from AIDS in the 1980s and early ‘90s, it quickly shifts its gaze to the present and future of the disease. Countdown is smartly organized into six segments: Outbreak, Vaccine, Trials, An AIDS-Free Generation, PrEP, and Cure, each of which efficiently communicates where we are now and where we might be very soon. And because HIV isn’t just an affliction of the LGBTQ community, the doc rightly focuses on other at-risk groups as well. “Outbreak,” for example, drops in on an on-going epidemic in the small community of Austin, Indiana, that began due to the sharing of needles between intravenous drug users in a state with less-than-enlightened public health policies. And the core of the film looks at the situation in Africa—where an estimated 25 million people are infected—and efforts within the country of South Africa, specifically, to test vaccines and end mother-to-child transmission.
The most surprising aspect of Countdown, in fact, is its insistence on presenting former President George W. Bush as an AIDS warrior. The producers got him to agree to a rare interview in which he discusses his administration’s support of the United Nations’ Global Fund and later the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR)—support which his unlikely partner-in-advocacy Bono credits with bringing us within sight of victory.
But Bush and Bono are hardly the only heroes in this story. That title also belongs to the researchers pioneering new immunotherapy techniques that may lead to a real cure, and to the many doctors and health care workers fighting AIDS on the ground, who daily strive to educate communities and stand up to denial-ridden governments. It also belongs to activists like Peter Staley, who here touts PrEP as perhaps the most immediately useful method we have in stemming new infections, especially within the gay male population. It belongs to Timothy Ray Brown, the “Berlin Patient,” who, due to his remarkable status as the only human ever to have been truly cured of AIDS, has dedicated his own body as a tool in the battle. And last but not least, there are the survivors—both those who fight on through profound loss and those who fight for their own health. These are heroes, too.
Countdown to Zero airs Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO.