There has been a renewed debate over whether AIDS deserves an exceptional response. We argue that as AIDS is having differentiated impacts depending on the scale of the epidemic, and population groups impacted, and so responses must be tailored accordingly. AIDS is exceptional, but not everywhere. Exceptionalism developed as a Western reaction to a once poorly understood epidemic, but remains relevant in the current multi-dimensional global response. The attack on AIDS exceptionalism has arisen because of the amount of funding targeted to the disease and the belief that AIDS activists prioritize it above other health issues. The strongest detractors of exceptionalism claim that the AIDS response has undermined health systems in developing countries.
We agree that in countries with low prevalence, AIDS should be normalised and treated as a public health issue–but responses must forcefully address human rights and tackle the stigma and discrimination faced by marginalized groups. Similarly, AIDS should be normalized in countries with mid-level prevalence, except when life-long treatment is dependent on outside resources – as is the case with most African countries - because treatment dependency creates unique sustainability challenges. AIDS always requires an exceptional response in countries with high prevalence (over 10 percent). In these settings there is substantial morbidity, filling hospitals and increasing care burdens; and increased mortality, which most visibly reduces life expectancy. The idea that exceptionalism is somehow wrong is an oversimplification. The AIDS response can not be mounted in isolation; it is part of the development agenda. It must be based on human rights principles, and it must aim to improve health and well-being of societies as a whole.
Globalization and Health (2009) 5:15 [doi:10.1186/1744-8603-5-15]