A quarter of a century ago, our world was threatened with a plague. We reacted as humans do – first with ignorance (that’s an African thing), then denial (it’s just a few cases, and they’re all homosexuals, so I’m safe), blaming the victims (That gay lifestyle, what do you expect? If they would just straighten out…) and calls for social quarantine (Gay men should be required to wear a badge!) Mainstream America wanted to feel safe, because AIDS was fatal. In 1990, if you contracted AIDS, there was no treatment, no cure.
At least three of my classmates died of AIDS. Homosexuality was still mostly kept secret at this time. The obituaries tiptoed around the cause of death: “Complications of pneumonia” “A long battle against disease”. If there was no wife at the bedside, if a “long-time companion” was mentioned, one could guess.
And there were other casualties. If you were unfortunate enough to need a blood transfusion at this time, you were unknowingly at risk. Blood donations were not screened for viruses, and the transfusion that saved your life one day could cause your death months or years later
Fast forward twenty-five years. AIDS is still a tragic diagnosis, but not because there is no treatment. We now know the cause of the plague, we know how to prevent transmission, and we have medicines to treat it. The tragedy is that people are still dying.
When the AIDS epidemic was first acknowledged, government decisions were made by the World Health Organization and by the US Center for Disease Control. The epidemic, from being “just a blip on our radar” was now judged too widespread to make preventative measures effective. The treatment was expensive. The policy was announced: There will be no funds for identifying HIV carriers, or for tracking the contacts of known carriers. HIV will only be treated when it has progressed to full-blown AIDS. This shortsighted policy resulted in hundreds of thousands of undiagnosed, untreated HIV carriers infecting millions more people.
In the US, private treatment funds have saved many thousands of HIV carriers , halting the progress of the disease, and preventing its transmission to others. But for many in the developing world, the cost of treatment is unmanageable. The plague goes on in Africa, where it wastes the bodies and lives of one and a half million victims yearly.
The Los Altos Rotary AIDS Project, founded in 1989, has adopted the strategy of the US military: Fight over there so we don’t have to fight over here. Thousands of dollars have been funneled into Africa through the Save the Children Foundation to educate and treat pregnant women on how to prevent transmission of HIV to their children. There have been setbacks: Clinics established in Liberia were left un-staffed and empty when the Ebola scare dominated headlines; these clinics must be re-staffed and re-energized. But the work goes on.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to do something to make the world better, a donation to the Los Altos Rotary Aids project would be a good place to start. Contact [http://www.rotaryaidsproject.org/howyoucanhelp].
(My thanks to Dr. Art Amman for much of the information about the current state of AIDS worldwide.)