Saturday is World Aids Day. We asked authors Gerald M. Oppenheimer and Ronald Bayer to help us commemorate this important holiday, to help us remember why AIDS research, awareness and education is so very important to our society. Oppenheimer and Bayer are the authors of Shattered Dreams: An Oral History of the South African AIDS Epidemic which uses interviews to tell the story of how physicians and nurses in South Africa struggled to ride the tiger of the world’s most catastrophic AIDS epidemic. In the original article below they reflect on the progress made and work still to be accomplished.
Once again it is almost World AIDS Day and in cities and communities around the world, there will be commemorations marking the date, December 1. But this year may be different. Some will begin to say, as they did in the United States, “Enough!” Too much energy, too many resources, have been devoted to an epidemic whose dimensions may have been exaggerated. They will point to a recent report from the United Nations suggesting that the global burden of HIV have been overestimated. Instead of the approximately 39 million people, as the world body previously reported, it is now thought that the numbers are closer to 33 million individuals. The number of newly infected, said the report, is declining where it is not leveling off. Seizing on these numbers, we will be urged to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
But before we turn our backs on AIDS and before we can congratulate ourselves, we should read the UN report carefully. Sub-Saharan Africa, “remains the most seriously affected region, with AIDS remaining the leading cause of death there.” Twenty-two and a half million people are infected there with HIV, 61% of whom are women. More than 11 million children have been orphaned. Stephen Lewis, formerly the UN Secretary General’s special envoy on AIDS, who has embraced the new numbers, has described the most recent data with regard to Africa as “a continuing apocalypse.”
And within Africa, it is South Africa that bears the greatest burden. More than 5 million men, women and children are infected. In some of its regions, upwards of 40% of childbearing women have HIV. Since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, more than 3 million people have died in that nation. While progress has been made there in providing treatment to those who would otherwise have perished, the numbers who receive appropriate AIDS care are far too small. There are not enough drugs, doctors or nurses. To make matters worse, there is the obdurate refusal of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, to commit itself himself to the fact that HIV causes AIDS; hence the failure of his government to make the kind of commitment that AIDS requires.
So when some wonder aloud about why we still need a World AIDS Day, let them think long and hard about South Africa. And let them think about the words of Dr. Brian Brink, Vice President for Medical Affairs at Anglo American Corporation, southern Africa’s largest employer, who has for years fought to change AIDS care in South Africa: “Many thousands are dying almost every day in Africa, and we just let it pass us by. We almost become complacent; it just happens. People don’t comprehend what is actually going on. You have got to go out there, into those impoverished areas and see the people dying and the dependent kids who are left behind.”