President, National Urban League
It's amazing to recall that at several different times during the horrifying and deadly match of AIDS across the globe in the past two decades, there seemed to be in some quarters a sense that AIDS was the disease of "those people," and therefore, not a problem "we" really needed to worry about.
At various times, "those people" were: homosexuals, or homosexuals and intravenous drug users; or homosexuals, intravenous drug users and African Americans; or homosexuals, intravenous drug users, African Americans, and Africans; or ...
You get the idea. For too many people for too long, AIDS has always been the problem of "those other people," not us.
And it doesn't matter where it's surfaced -- in poor African American and Latino American communities, among the White American middle class, in sub-Saharan Africa, and now, increasingly, everywhere in the world where economic impoverishment and all of its attendant ills are facts of life -- the reaction has largely been the same:
First, beleaguered civic leaders and government officials, and many of their populace, deny there is a serious problem until its deadly spread can no longer be hidden. Then, belatedly, they try to mobilize a defense as calamity looms.
That scenario played out in sub-Saharan Africa, where at least 20 million are infected with the HIV virus.
And the same dynamic is now fully evident in China, the world's most populous country. United Nations officials, world health experts, and AIDS activists inside the country have been warning for years that China's officials were deliberately underestimating the disease's spread.
Now, this month, the Chinese government raised its estimate of those infected with either the virus or full-blown AIDS to 1 million people and declared it would manufacture a full complement of AIDS drugs unless Western patent-holding companies lower their prices.
Observers remarked that the declaration was "a striking reversal" of the government's hitherto intransigent stance. This likely means that the government itself is truly alarmed about the rate of the disease's spread inside the country.
Remember, China's population is more than a billion people. For several years outside observers have estimated the true number of those infected with H.I.V. to be 1.5 million, nearly double the government's estimate of 850,000.
And observers have been warning for several years that the scourge in China was poised to "break out" of the relatively small populations its first rooted itself in -- drug users, first; and then, those who were exposed to contaminated blood supplies; and then, prostitutes -- into the general population.
That prospect in a country where millions upon millions of people live in conditions of the most serious poverty means the impact of the scourge there could quickly rival and perhaps surpass what has happened in Black Africa.
The portrait of the worldwide AIDS scourge is largely one of astonishing misery and shocking numbers. A study released at the recent United Nations conference on AIDS in Barcelona, Spain found that AIDS is intensifying, not decreasing, in those countries already among the hardest hit, and approaching epidemic-level stages in other countries and among certain population groups in many different places.
Without substantial improvement in prevention and treatment measures, it said, AIDS could kill 68 million people in the 45 most affected countries by 2020. By comparison, since 1980 AIDS has killed 13 million people in those countries.
This means that more countries, or sections of countries, in Latin America, Central Europe, and Asia could become like some sub-Saharan African countries. They could suffer so many deaths from AIDS that, statistically speaking, their populations would approach a negative life expectancy because more of their citizens are dying in a year than being born.
Americans are not immune from the characteristic ignorance about AIDS, either. A recent federal study has shown that here high numbers of young, gay, and bisexual males who have the AIDS virus don't know they have it, surely a reflection of a general American belief that the disease has been contained without our borders.
But, in fact, there are 950,000 Americans with the H.I.V. virus.
These and other frightening numbers mean that all governments of the world and peoples of the world, including those of us in the United States, have a lot of work to do in the fight against AIDS.
In fact, there has been tremendous progress on the AIDS front. Researcher have developed treatment regimens that have transformed AIDS from a sure-fire fatal disease to a chronic one in numerous places, and some of these regimens have been shown to work in such poor nations as Uganda.
Further, growing numbers of politicians across the globe are devoting more of their energies to the problem. They have been propelled into action by the shocking numbers that characterize the spread of AIDS everywhere within their borders and everywhere one turns.
With all the turmoil the world is ensnared in now, we cannot afford to forget the worldwide war against AIDS. For its numbers underscore in the most brutal way one devastating fact: AIDS doesn't discriminate.
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