Reversing AIDS’s Momentum

By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

World AIDS Day came and went December 1.
If only the devastating scourge of HIV/AIDS itself would go as quickly and easily.

But of course HIV/AIDS is not going to disappear easily or quickly, neither here in the United States nor around the world.

Instead, the coming of World AIDS Day brought forth a fresh set of grim statistics from the United Nations Program on AIDS and the World Health Organization mapping the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS in the United States and around the world.

More than 39 million people now have HIV/AIDS—a figure that includes nearly 5 million new cases diagnosed this year—and more than 3 million people worldwide have died from it this year alone. That number is expected to rise to 5 to 6 million deaths within two years.

There is some good news. The world's governments and scientific community has mobilized against AIDS with increasing urgency: funding for the struggle has increased from $2.1 billion in 2001 to $6.1 billion this year, and there are telling success stories.

And yet, the scope of the problem remains staggering.

For example, many believe the development of an anti-AIDS vaccine is at least a decade away, and that vaginal microbicides, which women could use to protect themselves from the risks of unprotected sex, are at least five years away.

Furthermore, although the funds devoted to combating HIV/AIDS have risen sharply, some estimate that, with the effects of HIV/AIDS deaths de-populating large swaths of Black Africa, and the disease approaching epidemic status in India and China, with their billion-plus populations, the world will soon need $20 billion a year for the fight.

A new disturbing development, according to the UN-WHO report, is that the pandemic is now increasing at a faster rate among women than men in almost every part of the world. Most often, the women are being infected by either their husbands or steady partners—who have contracted the disease either through sex with other men, or through drug use, or having sex with prostitutes—rather than the casual sexual encounters.

In India, for example, where 5.1 million people have HIV, women account for one-quarter of the new cases. Such ratios have become common throughout East Asia, and are much higher in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.

The trend is being driven by the fact that in many poor countries and traditional societies women (and teenage girls, who are often taken as sexual partners by older men) have little power to refuse male demands for sex, or compel males to wear condoms during sex, or, finally, to gain access to treatment once they are themselves infected.

Ironically, Vishakha N. Desai, president of the Asia Society, in New York, pointed out in a recent newspaper column, in many countries where the disease is significant, "having a husband is itself a risk factor for HIV."

Nor is the United States immune from the trend toward what some are calling the "feminization" of HIV/AIDS.

Here, women represent a growing part of the 850,000 to 950,000 people infected with HIV/AIDS, too.

This has struck African-American females hard because black Americans, although just 13 percent of the general population, comprised more than 51 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases diagnosed between 2000 and 2003. A recent report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that black women make up 72 percent of US women with HIV/AIDS.

The welter of statistics about HIV/AIDS—and the tragic stories of individuals, communities, and indeed entire nations behind them—make it clear that, despite its having been pushed off the front pages of the American media, HIV/AIDS lives. It's those suffering from it, in the United States and around the world, who are dying.

Our recognizing that must stir us to action. No matter where the HIV/AIDS scourge has rooted itself, the response of the healthy and those with resources has to be the same: More money and more resources have to be devoted to put in place the treatment and preventive programs that will beat back this disease.

It's no exaggeration to say that the stability of the world and the future of humanity depend on it.

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