Column: The reality of the AIDS epidemic

Despite new treatments, a wide understanding of how it is spread and a collective sense that the worst is behind us, the AIDS crisis is by no means over. The horrors of AIDS could only be beginning.

Nowhere is the AIDS crisis more acute than in the slums and refugee camps of sub-Saharan Africa, the breeding ground for some of the world’s most devastating diseases. This genetic melting pot that allows diseases to grow and jump across species barriers is also at the center of another profound problem in fighting the spread of disease: politics. Politics and disease have been indelibly linked since man’s first sneeze, and with AIDS, politics are still killing otherwise treatable patients.

The stamp of politics is all over the AIDS epidemic. The disease was never noticed prior to its appearance in the United States. Even then politics prevented a swift response to the disease. Scientists did not bother to study what was a “gay disease.” Discovery of the virus that causes AIDS was delayed years by the bigotry and politics of those scientists and the government officials controlling their funding. These authorities ignored thousands succumbing to the mysterious affliction. Only after celebrities became infected did the world begin to commit to fighting the disease. Now drugs have been developed that can lower patients’ viral loads to nearly undetectable levels. But these drugs are not a vaccine, and they are not a cure. More work must be done to defeat the virus.

AIDS is still out there. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can lay dormant for up to 11 years. By the time symptoms appear, the infected person could have spread the disease to countless others. Now, though, condoms are more widely used, so the disease should not infect people through unsafe sex. But research shows condom use is dropping; more people are engaging in risky behavior. Success in fighting the virus could mean failure for prevention efforts if people erroneously think treatments for AIDS can actually “cure” the disease.

AIDS has been in Africa for decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control, scientists believe the virus originated in African monkeys and jumped to humans when locals ate the meat of infected animals as early as the 1950s. The ailment, known as “slim” disease, lingered in Africa attacking local populations. Sometime in the early 1970s, Haitian relief workers picked up the virus and brought it to the Western Hemisphere. From Haiti’s only gay bar, a French-Canadian airline steward carried HIV to the U.S. The rest is, as they say, history.

The early victims of the disease in Africa died without doctors bothering to find out why. People in the developing world were rarely seen as priorities by Western policy makers with the money to make a difference. As the disease made its way into the bedrooms of America, the populations it struck first were also below the radar of “mainstream” society. The virus never preferred gay men or Haitians. It never sought out black Africans. It infected people according to the precepts of science not the prejudices of society. But it was prejudice and politics that determined the response to the disease.

Now humanity faces one of the greatest plagues in history. Unlike other pandemics, AIDS takes years to manifest itself. It is because the virus silently lurks in its victims that the disease could kill more people than any other medical disaster. According to The New York Times, infection rates in some parts of Africa have reached 36 percent and are increasing. More than 25 million people are infected with the virus. Other nations are struggling to stop the spread of HIV, most notably the nations of Southeast Asia and China.

AIDS, however, is expensive to treat. Discounted lifesaving drugs can cost as much as $1,200 a year for one patient. Smaller companies are offering the drugs for as little as $350 a patient, but even that gesture could backfire. HIV is notorious for building resistance to treatments. Studies show resistance to one anti-HIV drug has risen as high as 14 percent. Some scientists argue that giving drugs to African patients without supervision could spell disaster if the virus becomes resistant.

The ultimate solution remains unclear. Regardless, no one can assume AIDS is no longer a threat. No one can ignore an entire continent of infected people. Education and responsible behavior can still stop the spread of HIV. But only a large commitment of medical resources to African patients can abate what will soon be death on a horrendous scale.

The disease is now most prevalent in an area inhabited by people of color rarely understood and often ignored because of politics. Africans are mostly black, mostly poor, mostly seen as someone else’s problem. But industrialized nations must commit to destroying the disease before it finds its way once again to their shores resistant to standard treatments and poised to kill thousands, even millions, more.

-The writer is Hatchet opinions editor.

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