AIDS Walks Are Big Steps, Colltalers
Some 34 million people around the world are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, including about 2.5 million children. But even as Africa leads the number of cases, many would be shocked to know that almost two million Americans have the disease.
That’s right, the world’s richest nation is also where AIDS remains a threat, specially among males ages 20 to 29. Prevention and treatment have made great strides, but it seems unlikely that an effective cure, or vaccine, will be developed by the decade’s end.
That’s why thousands of people march every year in New York, and all over the world, as a powerful reminder that, since the early 1980s, HIV infections have never completely gone away, despite growing awareness and billions of dollars thrown at it.
The AIDS Walk, now on its 30th year, has been a symbolic display of solidarity and proof that, at least thousands if not millions of people, won’t forget that the most lethal of the infectious diseases, will remain as relentless and ruthless as it’s been ever since.
Particularly insidious is the fact that, despite the enormous economic gap between the U.S. and African nations, there are at least two common factors at the root of the spread of AIDS on both sides of the Atlantic: extreme poverty and rising cultural intolerance.
In addition, many impoverished African nations began to spouse in recent years the same repulsive cultural prejudices that plague some American states. That can be traced to an increased number of U.S.-based messianic preachers and radical-right politicians, who have targeted Africa to disseminate their fiery brand of religious sanctimony and political hypocrisy.
Take Texas and Louisiana, for instance, two states where there has been a spike in HIV infection rates among 16 to 24-year olds. Both states are dominated by conservative politics, strict policies towards the poor, high numbers of teenage pregnancies and high-school dropouts, discriminatory policies concerning women reproductive rights and sexual minorities, and hostility to immigrants.
By the way, the so-called Deep South has become, as a whole, the epicenter of the AIDS pandemic in the U.S. Nine states account to 40 percent of HIV diagnosis, despite representing only 28% of its population. Why? something to do with the previous graph.
Now consider Uganda and Zimbabwe, to name but two African nations. The stigma of poverty – which has little to do with control of all national resources by only a few – is just one of the drivers behind new HIV cases. Religious intolerance is the other.
In Uganda, homophobia is actually part of the law of the land, with the infamous 2009 Anti-Homosexuality Bill, a.k.a., kill the gays law. Again, the irony is that while the official rhetoric blames gays for the spread of AIDS (incidentally, they’re also being accused of being pedophiles) HIV rates overwhelmingly affect straight women. A similar case could be made for much of the rest of Africa.
It’s not hard to figure the impact that a growing number of women infected with a potentially terminal disease, may have on emerging economies. As often their families’ breadwinners – for men tend to be enlisted in the region’s omnipresent cycle of war and carnage – when they’re sick and/or die for lack of medical support, entire generations are affected and resources permanently depleted.
But knowing that AIDS is only one of the more recent of Africa’s hefty woes is not really the point here. Efforts to cut through the rhetoric of hate and to continue raising awareness about it are apace and may realize positive change in the long run.
What’s unforgivable though is the fact that in the U.S. there’s still resistance to increase funds, education, and openness about the AIDS scourge. It’s inadmissible that even basic programs, with a proven track of success in Europe and elsewhere, such as free condoms, needle exchange initiatives, and obligatory and honest sex education, continue to face religious and political opposition.
In the meantime, the numbers pile in. In 2011, 1.7 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses, and every year, there are about 2.5 million new cases worldwide. In the U.S., 50 thousand new cases are reported annually, and among the Americans already infected, a staggering 20 thousand have no idea they carry the virus. In less than 30 years, AIDS has killed 30 million people.
That’s but one reason why the AIDS Walk, be it in New York or anywhere, count so much. Not for the funds raised, which in 1985 totaled about 650 thousand dollars and this year may reach the 5 million mark. Or because of the growing number of people who donate time and effort to the cause of finding a cure, which, why not? also includes walking and raising a few dollars.
What’s most important, however, is the constant reminder that there’s not yet a cure, current treatments may be effective to the majority but not to everyone, medicines are expensive, and awareness is still a vital, if not the greatest, defense against AIDS.
Yes, there are issues of transparency in the use of funds, and just as with cancer research, many question the way resources are channeled to a few multimillion dollar labs, that develop drugs based on their commercial appeal, and not on health priorities.
But in the meantime, we’re still walking. We do miss the aggressiveness of organizations such as the ActUp, which in the 1980s and 1990s, were instrumental to force governments and private pharmaceutical companies to develop the current therapies.
But that’s not an excuse either, so keep walking. Compassion is still a value worth pursuing and it was at full display yesterday in Central Park, when over 30,000 marched. Despite all the hoopla and occasional grandstanding, exposure is fundamental to keep the focus on it.
Doctors, celebrities, politicians, and many who’re HIV positive, have expressed interesting views about the tragedy of AIDS, the horror that’s visited among whole communities, and also about the good that it eventually brought out of some people.
It’s a cliche to end posts with quotes, but since AIDS awareness in the 1980s was often represented by a red ribbon, American comedian Gilbert Gottfried has summarized with rare foresight the role of reminders that people usually play during dark times.
‘Any advancements that came towards fighting AIDS were not done by scientists or doctors – it was people with little ribbons on their lapels,’ he said, when a diagnosis was an automatic death sentence. We’ve come a long way, that’s for sure. A great week, everyone. WC