If there is one bright spot to the history of the AIDS
epidemic it is the speed and conviction with which the gay community first responded to
the threat. It was vigilant in educating people, galvanizing action, and demanding
political responsesuch as getting government money flowing into the research world.
They faced enormous barriers of bias that came about when the Christian
right linked AIDS with deviance. Much of the bias was built upon scientific ignorance as
exemplified by Rev. Jerry Falwell when, in 1983, he proclaimed on television, "AIDS
is Gods punishment
We do reap it in our flesh when we violate the laws of
Granted, the scientific findings at the time were limited. Nonetheless, it
never occurred to this conservative faction that a virus could be responsible for the
disease in the first place; and that it is possible a virus might not consider a
hosts sexuality when determining its path of infection.
The result of that resolve by the gay community was that the infection
rate decreased significantly. But then, as the disease spread among the heterosexual
population and the I-V drug population, it became clear that the problem was a very
complex one. Still, scientists responded admirably.
A tremendous amount of work was done trying to understand the disease.
Specifically, great strides were made in understanding modes of transmission and ways of
detecting the virus. These advances paved the way for massive education and prevention
Concurrently, scientists studied new drugs and their effects on the virus.
After several permutations of clinical drug tests, it now appears, almost 20 years after
the first appearance of the disease, that people infected with the virus can live for many
healthy years without developing AIDS.
Of course, I am talking about America. There is a much more depressing
scenario playing out in the rest of the world, specifically in Africa.
At the recent World AIDS Forum held in South Africa, it became apparent
that the somewhat positive course of events in the United States is not at all
representative of Africa. The data that came out of the conference indicated that the
epidemic is raging out of control, killing millions of people.
To fill out the factual picture a bit, here are a few samples of the
horrendous figures coming out: The AIDS infection rate in the U.S. is 0.61 percent. In
Botswana the rate is 35.8 percent; in South Africa, 19.9 percent; in Zimbabwe, 25.1
Worldwide, 34.3 million people are living with HIV or AIDS. More than 24
million of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa (71 percent). Because of AIDS, the
projected life expectancy in 2010 in Malawi is 35 years. Without AIDS it would have been
58 years. Namibias life expectancy has fallen from 70 to 38 years. Life spans
have been cut nearly in half.
Given the current infection rates and also given that 19 million people
have already died since the beginning of the epidemic, it seems likely that AIDS will be
even deadlier than the Black Death of the 14th century when 40 million Europeans were
killed by bubonic plague.
What also became apparent during the conference was that there is a
widening gap between the majority of victims todaygenerally from poor and
undeveloped countriesin terms of access to resources that can be applied to control
It is a disparity that poses significant moral questions.
The sophistication of medical care and its inherent high cost are
increasing much faster than the economic means of third world nations. The question
arises: If we have the medical capability to solve or diminish a health care crisis
outside of our borders, are we obligated to implement it and pay for it? It is a scenario
that, I think, wealthy nations will increasingly be confronted with.
It is one way this plague differs from that of the 14th century. This time
around we actually know how to control the disease. The people of the 14th century had no
moral qualms, because they didnt have any solutions. We have the drugs and the
educational programs at our fingertips. The money is the rub.
Dr. Peter Piot, head of the United Nations organization monitoring the
spread of AIDS, has said that it would take a minimum of $3 billion per year to deal with
the AIDS problem in Africa.
Certainly it is easy to say we dont have the money. But when we
constantly hear about massive budget surpluses (in the trillions) and things like the
militarys recent spending of $100 million for a one-shot test of an anti-missile
system (one that failed as it turns out), it seems a less defensible position.
Furthermore, if Africa collapses socially and economicallyand it likely will if
nothing is donethe cost to the U.S. will be far greater than $3 billion per year.
It may be, too, that it is not a purely economic decision.
We might also look at such a calamitous situation from a broad
perspectivethat is, in evolutionary terms. From a purely physiological point of
view, HIV presents a significant challenge to our livelihood. And it appears that with our
fine scientific minds, financial commitment and political resolve we have found a way out
of the noose, in the U.S. at least. But perhaps there is more at stake.
What makes humans unique in the animal kingdom is our compassion and sense
of ethics. It would seem that those qualities have to play into our survival as a
species. It is hard to believe that our sense of morality is like the appendix in our
gutsa quirk or oversight of evolution with no apparent function. Surely, we possess
compassion and morality so that it may be expressed.
Trying to rationally extrapolate where the paying of large sums of money
to prevent suffering and death will lead us is a futile exercise. We rarely do the right
thing because we can foresee the result. We do not have that kind of vision. Usually, we
do it because we can.