Wednesday, December 10, 2008

World AIDS Day: Ice water or hypothermia?

An old-fashioned remedy for a toothache was to hold one of your hands in ice water. It didn’t cure your toothache but the pain in your hand helped you forget the pain in your tooth. With the global financial crisis feeling more like it’s going to need a root canal rather than a simple filling, some may be looking for a bucket of ice water. World AIDS Day, which happened this past Monday, was probably not what they had in mind. The tragedy of the AIDS pandemic is more than an ice bucket; it should make us grateful that we only have a toothache.

I vaguely remember that when I was a student at Knowlton Academy, the school arranged for someone to come in and speak to us about AIDS. Though time has blurred my memory, I remember the disease being described as a terminal disease meaning once you had contracted it, there was little, if any, hope of survival.

Things have come quite a long way since then. In North America, thanks to the success of anti-retroviral therapy (also known as ARVs), AIDS is now considered a chronic disease which means that, though it can’t be cured, it also doesn’t kill. Whereas at its peak in the mid-1990’s, AIDS was responsible for the death of 3,000 people a year in Canada, it now kills only around one person a day on average.

It is this proven success of ARVs in developed countries like Canada that makes the AIDS pandemic in Africa such a tragedy. It has demonstrated that HIV infection does not necessarily have to end in death. Former Canadian ambassador to the UN and UN Special Envoy on AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis puts it quite succinctly: “all these blessed people are dying for no reason whatsoever except the negligence of the international community.” In other words, people living with HIV do not die from AIDS anymore, they die from a lack of access to ARVs.

In South Africa alone, over 300,000 people die from AIDS every year. That is the equivalent of losing the population of the Eastern Townships every year. And the loss of life is not where the trauma ends. Almost two million children have lost one parent and nearly half a million have lost both parents to AIDS. To understand the magnitude of this, imagine a country where, in every classroom of 30 students, four had lost one of their parents to AIDS and one had lost both. Worldwide, it is estimated that over 25 million people have died of AIDS and 33 million people are carriers of HIV and despite Africa making up only 15% of world population, two out of every three HIV infections can be found there.

But the news is not all bleak. Access to ARVs is on the rise in most African countries. Nearly 30% of those in need of these drugs to survive have access to them. This is thanks to international groups such as the William Clinton Foundation, who negotiated low prices for ARVs with suppliers, and Keep a Child Alive (KCA) who buy these drugs and provide counseling services to HIV infected families and children in Africa.

Louise O’Shea, director of KCA’s college branch in Canada, took the opportunity this summer to visit an orphanage supported by KCA in South Africa. The Agape orphanage, which means “unconditional love in the Zulu language, is home to 49 children who have all been orphaned by AIDS. Walking an hour to and from the orphanage each day, she was touched by the friendliness of the people she encountered in a region that has been ravaged by a 41% HIV infection rate and found the hardest part of her trip was saying goodbye to all the children of the orphanage when she left.

“The KCA’s mandate” she explained to me, “is to provide anti-retroviral treatment to children and families at 12 sites in India and Africa.” KCA funds these activities through charitable donations. Many charities use a portion of donations to pay for administration but KCA contributes 100% of donations toward drugs and support services and funds its administration solely through a yearly fundraiser.

When asked why Canadians should be concerned with AIDS in Africa, O’Shea explains that we live in a global community and that it should be our goal to eliminate suffering in the world whether it be next door or across the ocean. “No one dies of AIDS in North American anymore so we forget that AIDS is a huge problem in other parts of the world.” This echoes the sentiments of AIDS researcher Kenneth Mayer who says part of the problem with AIDS is that of social stigma: that the epidemic will only affect “those other people”.

O’Shea also wonders, “whether it’s possible to have a $700 billion dollar AIDS bailout,” adding that she doesn’t doubt the need for such an economic stimulus package but wonders why it’s so hard to find the one dollar day per person required to keep people infected with HIV alive. Indeed, it becomes difficult to wonder how a world that spends over a trillion dollars globally for military purposes cannot rationalize spending a relatively paltry one or two hundred million dollars to effectively stifle the suffering AIDS has caused in Africa and worldwide.

Of course, anti-retroviral drugs are not the only answer. “It’s easier to educate people than to medicate people,” O’Shea says meaning that people need to be educated about how to avoid contracting HIV by not participating in high-risk activities such as unprotected sex. Of course, it doesn’t help that African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, and Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, mislead Africans by telling them that HIV does not cause AIDS and that it is a conspiracy plot to stop the procreation of black Africans.

“The necessary resources, both economic and political, will always be found for the purpose of terminating life. The project of preserving it will always struggle.” British journalist George Monbiot says this not referring to AIDS specifically but in a broader context. However, his words more than aptly describe the international community’s attitude toward AIDS in Africa. So though Worlds AIDS Day has passed, let us all take a moment to think about the people who could still be alive today and the families they have left behind.

For those wishing to know about AIDS in Africa I suggest reading Stephen Lewis’ book “Race Against Time” or watching him online:
The KCA website can be found at:

As appeared in the December 3, 2008 edition of the Brome County News

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