AIDS is the worst case disease scenario. It is sexually transmitted and invokes almost complete conversational avoidance concerning the most intimate act. It hits young adults just as the society had completed investing in their training and before any payback can occur. It kills slowly and incurs high treatment and care costs even as the victim had time to bear two, three, even four children to be left orphaned. AIDS attacks the immune system, making it almost impossible for people in undeveloped countries to fight opportunistic disease and live to or exceed full life expectancy. Richard Holbrooke, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, calls it the world’s biggest problem.
Of the thirty-four million people around the world who are infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, nearly seventy-five percent are in Africa and will die in the next five to eight years. In some African nations, fully one-fourth of the population is infected. In surveys of seventeen African nations, more than one-half of all those aged fifteen to nineteen could not identify a single method of protecting themselves against the virus. AIDS is causing the death of many young adults. The crisis is so immense that 300,000 residents are walking around with the virus and do not know it. “Our initial reaction was public education about the disease and how it is spread,” Botswana Health Minister Joy Phumaphi says, “but that was not enough for people to initiate behavioral change.” Behavior and culture are the primary reasons AIDS is spreading like wildfire through the heterosexual community. While HIV is stigmatized because the population believes it is an indication of unacceptably loose morals, in fact the culture in many African nations openly tolerates both rampant male promiscuity and the routine exchange of sex for money by women. There is also a myth that sex with a virgin will cure a person of the disease, which leads to the rape and infection of children as young as two.
In Africa, there are complex cultural, social, economic, and political factors behind the devastating speed of this disease’s advance. Many analysts believe that the rampant spread of AIDS on the African continent is due to poverty and lack of education. Already in Uganda’s hardest hit region, one-half the population above age fifteen is HIV positive, but much of Africa has yet to register more than a few cases. Former South African President Nelson Mandela reportedly mentioned AIDS only once in his entire tenure as President. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, still questions whether AIDS is even caused by HIV and the President of Zimbabwe apparently still denies there is homosexuality in his country. A 1999 survey of seventy-two minors orphaned by AIDS in a hard hit Kenyan community cited that though all knew of the disease, none believed their parents had died of it. Most thought witchcraft or a curse was to blame.
These people cannot fight back without help. Babies are contracting the disease from their mothers because of lack of drugs, such as AZT. They need to be educated and tested for the disease. They need doctors and drugs to be treated. Most significant, pharmaceutical companies are finally beginning to make AIDS drugs accessible and affordable -- in some cases even free -- for the countries of Africa and elsewhere in the Third World. Drug patents can be broken in these cases to help the sick and dying. More money and provisions are needed. We need to help our people to prevent suffering and death. The West must help Africa and other regions where AIDS is out of control
with money for education, health care infrastructure and treatment. Americans must end their complacency. And Africa must help itself with leadership and the end of denial. It must face reality, or it will suffer holocaust. Eventually the epidemic will be checked. It appears that behavioral change- a reduction in the number of sexual partners, a sharp increase in knowledge about and use of condoms- will occur first. Later will come accessible treatments and, lastly, a vaccine. Still, the challenge ahead is monstrous. UNAIDS executive director Peter Piot says $3 billion a year is needed for basic prevention and care in Africa alone. That is 10 times what is spent today. The human race is capable of protecting itself from extinction with its drugs and knowledge; money
should not be an issue.
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