What is AIDS?

AIDS is an acronym that stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

  • Acquired means that the virus is contracted from an external source. AIDS is not contagious in the same way that the flu is. It has to be contracted by direct exposure to infected bodily fluids. Sexual intercourse, the sharing of needles, and mother to child transmission during birth are the most common means of contraction.
  • Immunodeficiency means that AIDS attacks the immune system. It makes the human body incapable of fighting other diseases, and the thousands of germs that we all encounter in our every-day lives.
  • Syndrome means that AIDS presents itself not as a single disease, but rather as a whole set of diseases that attack the person living with AIDS as the immune system weakens.

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. The difference between HIV and AIDS is a subtle one. When a person originally contracts the disease, they are said to be HIV positive. The person is said to have AIDS when the HIV infection has destroyed enough of the immune system that it is no longer able to protect the body from opportunistic infections.

The Numbers

  • Almost 40 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS.
  • There were nearly five million new infections in 2000 - that?s a new infection about every seven seconds.
  • Since the beginning of the epidemic, thirty million people have died.
  • In some sub-Saharan countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Swaziland, more than 1/3 of the adult population is living with HIV.
  • In sub-Saharan Afirca, women account for 57% of all new HIV cases.
  • Worldwide, youth between 15 and 24 account for about half of new HIV cases.

HIV/AIDS in the Developing World

90% of people living with HIV are in the developing world. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, more than 28 million people are living with HIV. Most new infections also occur in the developing world.

In the developing world, governments do not have the resources to fight the epidemic. AIDS prevention education is limited by monetary constraints, and fragmented education systems. Testing for HIV and providing care for people living with HIV is difficult because of high costs and poorly developed health infrastructure.

The Effects of HIV/AIDS

Besides the grief that sickness and loss of a loved one inevitably causes, HIV/AIDS often kills parents and providers. When a family loses a parent or provider, the family has to find new ways to survive. This often includes taking children out of school to work, or to care for their younger siblings. It might also force the remaining parent or older children into sex work - where there is a increased risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Because of the way that HIV/AIDS is transmitted, it often kills both parents of a family. This can mean that the oldest children in a family are forced to act as parent-providers. Other times, members of the extended family take children in - sometimes as many as twelve or more from the various parts of the extended family. But the disease is killing members of extended families too. Family networks can only stretch so far before they break. Caring for the thirty-four million AIDS orphans worldwide is one of the most pressing consequences of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.

HIV/AIDS makes it difficult for communities to function and countries to develop by killing off people in their most productive years, just when society needs them most. Children cannot learn when their teachers and bus drivers are dying. People cannot get well when doctors, nurses, and public health workers are dying. Governments cannot function when administrators, taxmen, and politicians are dying.

Why are most Still Dying?

Today in the developed world, HIV is a chronic, rather than deadly disease. Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) cannot cure HIV, but they can slow its progression. More importantly, they allow people living with HIV to live normal, healthy, and happy lives. Unfortunately, only approximately seven percent of the people in the developing world that need treatment actually receive it. This is called the access gap.

Companies that develop new medicines have the right to patent them. Patentees (called brand-name manufacturers) are given exclusive production and distribution rights over the patented drug for a given period of time, normally twenty years. During this period, the patent holder has the right to sell the patented medicine at whatever price it wishes to. As a result, patented medicines are very expensive. When the patent expires, other companies (called generic manufacturers) are allowed to sell and produce chemically identical versions of the medicine in question. The resulting competition drives the cost of medicine down.

In theory, the patent system is fantastic. Companies that spend lots of time and money on the development of new medicines can pay off the cost of the development of the medicine during the patent period. Unfortunately, the system is based on the deadly assumption that people who need the patented medicines, or their health insurance, can afford them. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the developing world, where the resources to pay for treatment, which can cost hundreds of dollars a day, are simply not available.

The access gap must be closed. Importantly, the World Trade Organization ? which has the job of standardizing intilectual property law ? has recently agreed that public health must be the primary concern of governments and that intilectual property rights do not trump the right to health. The fight for access continues. There are still millions who urgently need treatment and are not receiving it.

UNAIDS has taken the lead in the fight for treatment access with the 3 by 5 campaign. The campaign aimed to provide treatment to 3 million in the developing world by 2005. Unfortunately, although much progress has been made, this goal was not met.

What is Required to Close the Gap?

  • More political will to put public health above private profits.
  • Increased price-reducing competition from generic pharmaceutical manufacturers.
  • Trade rules that allow developing countries to make the health of their people a priority.

What Can We Do About it?

After learning a little about the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, it is easy to feel helpless - to feel that there is nothing that you could do to help, but this is not the case.

One of the most important things that you can do is help raise awareness in the developed world about the extent and gravity of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Along with this first step, be sure to educate yourself too.

The next thing you can do is make sure that your elected representatives know that you think fighting the pandemic should be a priority. At the same time, you can encourage them to support dropping third world debt, to increase international development assistance, to increase contributions to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Malaria, and Tuberculosis, and to not support national or international legislation that would put intellectual property rights over the right to health.

Finally, if you are interested in becoming more involved in international AIDS activism, you can join your local SAGA chapter.