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Winning the AIDS fight

On Dec. 1, the world marked the 20th World AIDS Day. This year’s theme was “Leadership,” derived from the five year World AIDS Campaign running theme, “Stop AIDS Keep the Promise.”

As the agenda suggests, leadership is sorely needed to combat the pandemic, commit resources for prevention and management where they are mostly needed and to overcome stigmatization, which to date is the biggest challenge to prevention. Speaking on World AIDS Day, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that stigma is the biggest reason why HIV/AIDS continues to wreak devastation around the world.

Over time, HIV/AIDS has become a major global health issue. With no hope for a vaccine in the near future, it is likely to continue the devastating impact on public health and families across the world.

This past September, Merck, a giant U.S. pharmaceutical, called off a very promising HIV vaccine effort that floundered at the human trial stage. Obviously, this has been a very major setback, given the initial hope staked on the endeavor. However, we all can hope that the search for a vaccine continues unabated.

HIV/AIDS is mostly a poor peoples’ disease. The latest statistics (Nov. 20) from the Joint United Nations/ World Health Organization Program on HIV/AIDS indicate that 68 percent of the global incidence of people living with HIV/AIDS is in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are 33.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the world.

This is followed by Asia, eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Infections are lowest in the developed north. Russia is shown as experiencing an escalation while Indonesia has the world’s fastest growing epidemic.

HIV itself does not kill; it simply overwhelms an infected person’s immunity. Mortality results from a syndrome of infections that assail the patient during the last stages of the disease. With a flogged immunity, the body is unable to resist infections.

Just like HIV diminishes a body’s immunity, making it extremely vulnerable, AIDS does the same for communities around the world. The highest proportion of people living with the disease in developing countries are young adults. This robs communities of the capacity to progress economically, socially and intellectually. The disproportionate toll on women impacts negatively on the critical role women play in child development in particularly and human advancement in general.

Just like climate change, HIV/AIDS is an issue that transcends national boundaries. It calls for a concerted response by governments, NGO’s, international organizations like the U.N., community organizations and individuals, including students.

It should be a global issue just as it normally is every Dec. 1, including this past Saturday.

In Washington D.C., President Bush pressed Congress to double the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), to $30 billion over five years. The program, Bush’s most ambitious policy agenda on the fight against the disease, presents a hope that humanity might just be able to conquer the spread of HIV/AIDS. Like many other issues in world development, a very strong U.S. leadership is called for in this respect. It is refreshing that the U.S. president is committed to the war on HIV/AIDS.

PEPFAR is by far the developed world’s largest commitment to the fight. If it is doubled as Bush envisages, it will go a long way in not only providing antiretroviral drugs to AIDS patients but also enhance the overall war on HIV/AIDS. Ultimately, this is an area that the current government of the U.S. deserves accolades.

In China, a country where stigma against HIV/AIDS patients runs deep, Hu Jintao, the president, celebrated the day with patients promising governmental support. In Brazil, the government already has a far reaching antiretroviral program that reaches a majority of patients. On Dec. 1, the government resolved to make condoms available in public schools.

In South Africa, the world’s most affected by UNAIDS statistics (with 5.5 million people living with the disease); the “Nelson Mandela 46664” concert to raise funds for the fight was held. Mandela appealed for a more concerted effort on leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS. His call is instructive since Thabo Mbeki had cast aspersions on the link between HIV and AIDS.

The world over, people observed the day: Some with hope, others with fear and despondency. It is a global issue that we all need to confront. We all can, by first debunking the myths that surround the disease. We can make decisions not to apportion blame on the infected, not to stigmatize or ostracize.

Americans can also look beyond humanitarianism: The oft-quoted African or Asian begging for survival from the west. Without doubt, Americans, have, unlike any other nationals of the developed north, done a lot in way of helping fight against HIV/AIDS in developing countries.

However, a more profound contribution would be choosing elected officials who are committed to a strategic and effective HIV/AIDS policy in the developing world. Make sure that those you vote for will support PEPFAR, for those who will not limit funding to just abstinence or the purchase of American made pharmaceuticals – only and for those who will support any and all strategies to check the pandemic’s spread.

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