THE AGE OF AIDS
This is the 25th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnosis. The disease now stands as the deadliest epidemic the world has ever seen. 25 million people have died, including 500,000 Americans. Another 40 million currently live with the virus. A small fraction of those infected receive the anti-retroviral medication that holds the disease at bay. There is no cure. There is no vaccine. New infections occur every minute of every day. AIDS deaths in Africa are expected to top 100 million within the next decade, far more than the Black Plague that decimated Europe in the middle ages. The history books read by future generations will take little notice of the issues that occupy us: illegal immigration, social security, the war in Iraq. Hundreds of years from now, our era will be known as the Age of AIDS.
That’s a sorry state of affairs considering that, unlike the Black Plague, the virus that causes AIDS is 100% preventable. Sorrier still is the fact that even now, in the face of such devastation, AIDS prevention efforts continue to be hampered by the ideological blinders worn by people in power.
Last week a massive international conference led by the UNAIDS organization attempted to hammer out a resolution, a kind of road map, to update the one they put together in 2001. The document states that prevention efforts must be targeted at “vulnerable populations,” which is a code word for prostitutes, IV drugs users, and homosexual men. Conservative nations, mostly Islamic, refused to allow those words to appear on the resolution, and balked at even the mealy-mouthed “vulnerable populations” language. I am happy to report that the U.S. was not among those nations this time, although we were in 2001. You can read the final declaration of the U.N. General Assembly Special Session here.
But we are not off the hook. Although the Bush administration dramatically increased our financial contribution to fighting AIDS worldwide, every U.S. dollar comes with ideological strings attached. Bush favors an “abstinence until marriage ONLY” approach to AIDS prevention, and ties U.S. contributions to those programs. The restrictions on how U.S. funds are spent are so stringent that Brazil refused 40 million dollars from the U.S., because accepting the money would have limited their ability to provide AIDS education and prevention resources to sex workers.
Abstinence-until-marriage rhetoric is a cruel joke in third world countries. World-wide, 80% of women who contract HIV are infected by their husbands. Between AIDS, death in childbirth, and abuse, getting married is the riskiest thing a woman in a developing country can do. But women in the third world lack the social and economic power to refuse to marry, and once married, they cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands or insist on condom use.
Abstinence-only also receives 100% of federal dollars spent on sex education and AIDS prevention programs in U.S. schools. There’s a whole other post in that, so I won’t go on about it now. I’ll discuss the Bush administration’s anti-condom stance another day.
The federal government also refuses to fund needle exchange programs on ideological grounds, even though the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that needle exchange programs reduce HIV incidence without increasing drug use. And indeed, it seems quite obvious. A non-drug user won’t shoot up just because clean needles are handed out on the street corner. And a junkie in need of a fix will not hesitate to use a dirty needle if he doesn’t have a clean one in his pocket.
I know I post about AIDS stuff a lot. Maybe you are tired of hearing about it. Well here’s a fact to keep you up at night. There are already medication-resistant strains of the virus running around, and they will only increase in prevalence. And a large percentage of individuals carrying HIV do not know they are infected. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t think you can’t get it. And don’t think that it’s no big deal if you do. 25 million dead, and counting.