The AIDS Epidemic: Can Mankind Ever Survive This Killer Disease?


By J. Kerkula Foeday


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
March 23, 2006


Twenty-five years ago, one of the most destructive epidemic mankind has ever encountered in recorded history erupted. It is the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). AIDS was first recognized in the world amongst gay men in 1981 in Manhattan, New York (UNAIDS/WHO, 2005; Dr. Cantwell, 2006). Explanations as regards the cause and origin of this life-threatening disease are still debatable among doctors and researchers. Some doctors and researchers, like Dr. Alan Cantwell, Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, Dr. Robert Strecker, and Professor Robert Lee, contend that AIDS is a man-made disease. In a number of articles, including The Gay Experiments That Started AIDS in America and The Virus Cancer Program: Birthplace of AIDS, Dr. Cantwell argues that AIDS originated in the National Institute of Health cancer program initiated in 1968 thru 1980 after the U.S. Congress provided funds for intensive research into the possible role of viruses in leukemia. Dr. Cantwell and colleagues maintain that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the retrovirus that causes AIDS, was injected in gay men who volunteered to participate in the U. S.-sponsored hepatitis B vaccine experiments of 1978 – 1981. Other doctors and researchers, on the other hand, argue that AIDS originated in Africa from a monkey or chimpanzee virus. This explanation remains the uncritically popularly acceptable theory about the origin of HIV/AIDS.

Notwithstanding the two theories about the cause and origin of this killer disease, AIDS, the fact remains that AIDS is a global epidemic. It affects every country, community and society worldwide. In December 2005, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS/WHO) reported that about 40.3 million people currently live with HIV. Of this number, 38 million are adults, 17.5 million are women, and 2.3 million are children under the age of 15 years. The UNAIDS and WHO report further indicates that 300,000 people live with the virus in the Caribbean, 1.8 million in Latin America, 720,000 in Western and Central Europe, 1.6 million in Eastern and Central Asia, 870,000 in East Asia, 7.4 million in South and Southeast Asia, 74,000 in Oceania, 25.8 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 510,000 in North Africa and the Middle East, and 1.2 million in the United States (2005).

In spite of the availability of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to treat HIV and AIDS, the disease still remains prevalent. New cases are diagnosed every year. For example, just in 2005, according to UNAIDS and WHO, there were five million new diagnoses globally. In the U. S., where access to ARV therapy as well as to improved, advanced medical technology is high, the yearly rate of new diagnoses of the disease is 40,000 (DeNoon, 2004; UNAIDS/WHO, 2005).

The impact of the disease is grave. It affects society, first by destroying the family, the very basis of society. It hamstrings economic growth and makes the provision of social services more difficult, thereby exacerbating poverty and making people more vulnerable to the spread of the virus (UNAIDS/WHO, 2005, p. 1). Children are the most vulnerable populations the disease affects. In the December 2005 report, the Joint United Nations programme on HIV/AIDS observes:

“Every minute of every day, a child under the age of 15 becomes infected with HIV. In most cases, the virus is transmitted by the HIV-infected mother; transmission can occur in the womb, during birth or through breastfeeding.” (UNAIDS/WHO, 2005)

The AIDS epidemic has taken a heavy toll on lives. Since it was first recognized in 1981, AIDS has killed more than 25 million people (UNAIDS/WHO, 2005). In 2005, there were 3.1 million AIDS deaths, of which 570,000 were children under the age of 15. In sub-Saharan Africa, the death toll was 2.4 million; in Latin America and the Caribbean, the death toll was 90,000; in Asia the death toll was 524,600; in Europe, the death toll was 74,000; and in the U.S. the death toll was 18,000. Stephen Lewis, the Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, in February 2004, lamented the grim AIDS epidemic when he said:
“If [the WHO] 3 by 5 fails, as it surely will without the dollars [resources and support], then there are no excuses left, no rationalizations to hide behind, no murky slanders to justify indifference. There will only be the mass graves of the betrayed.” (AVERT, 2006)

With these alarming, heartbreaking figures and facts, the question remains: Can mankind ever survive AIDS? Can mankind overcome the AIDS virus?

As an optimist, I do believe that man can survive this deadly global menace. I believe HIV can be overcome only and only if a number of issues are considered and addressed. First, the AIDS epidemic should be seen as a common community problem. It should not be seen as either a “gay man” disease or a disease of a particular people or region. This also means that the disease should not be treated with discrimination and stigma as it has been the case over the years.

The second thing to consider in the fight against the disease is concrete, vigorous actions versus promises. For years now, promises and commitments to fight the disease have been made; yet these promises and commitments are being slowly realized. In 2003, the Global Funds to Fight AIDS was set up, yet the disease keeps growing. In January 2003, President George Bush, in his State of the Union Address, committed the U.S. to working to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 20% by 2005 and 50% by 2010. He also said the U. S. would provide ARV drugs and therapy to 500,000 people in 2005, 1 million in 2006, and 2 million in 2007 respectively. Whether or not these promises have been realized or will be realized is a subject of guess and hope.

The World Bank committed itself to provide over $1.7 billion through grants, loans, and other credits to be used to increase access to ARV treatment, yet access to ARV therapy and drugs is still marginal. UNAIDS and WHO report that in 2005 only a tiny minority (about 15%) of the estimated six million people in need of ARVs in resource-poor countries actually received treatment. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of people reportedly living with HIV are, ARV treatment is available to only 11% of those in need.
Pharmaceutical companies themselves have pledged to make ARV drugs and treatment available for over 150,000 people through a program called Accelerating Access Initiative. The irony about this Accelerating Access Initiative is that costs for ARV drugs and treatment are so high that those who need ARVs the most hardly afford these drugs.

The third thing to consider in the fight against HIV/AIDS is to ensure universal, free access to ARV drugs and therapy. This means patent rights to the production and distribution of generic AIDS drugs must be abolished. It also means that UNAIDS and WHO must work with all countries to ensure continuous, sufficient and free supply of ARV drugs and services to those in need.

A successful fight against HIV/AIDS requires education. People must be fully educated about the disease. This implies that there need to be trained man power and enough resources.

Until mankind, including most especially the United Nations and governments of the world, takes serious the aforementioned issues, AIDS shall continue to take a heavy toll on the lives of every community. And man shall lack the ability to survive this killer disease.

About the author: J. Kerkula Foeday is a MSW Candidate, School of Social Work, University of Iowa