AIDS: What Can We Do?
It's been said that the number of people dying of AIDS represents the equivalent of 20 fully loaded 747s crashing every single day for a year.
At least 33 million people are alive with HIV and perhaps another 43 million have already perished from AIDS. AIDS is the biggest health problem the world has ever faced.
Having just marked World AIDS Day once again, it's worth us each stopping to consider the scale of this tragic disease - and to consider what we as individuals might be able to do to alleviate the problem.
But when the headlines reflect such a massive worldwide problem, it's easy to feel overwhelmed; it's easy to raise our hands in despair and say, "What can I possibly do to alleviate a problem that's become so huge?"
The World Health Organisation's 2004 report said that: "HIV/AIDS may not be curable, but it is certainly preventable and treatable."
At one point Uganda had one of the highest rates of infection in the world. The Ugandans have a saying: "one plus one soon makes a bundle". Every individual can make a difference - so too can organisations, community groups and churches.
Today, Uganda's infection rate has dropped in no small part because of a grass-roots movement that encourages abstinence and faithfulness. Christian churches have been at the forefront of this movement. They've also been on the front line of providing AIDS care and supporting AIDS orphans.
As individuals and organisations, we can lobby local members of Parliament for more funding for AIDS research or AIDS care.
We can also talk to them about stopping the international sex trade, which leaves so many people - in particular children - vulnerable to the spread of AIDS.
More than $10B is needed every year for AIDS prevention and treatment in poor countries - and the cost keeps growing.
Rich governments need to invest more in distributing treatments to poorer neighbours.
We can also pressure drug companies to share their know-how with the poor.
Whilst there is as yet no medical cure for AIDS there have been some positive signs with the development of anti-retroviral drugs. These drugs have some pretty uncomfortable side effects, but at least they stop HIV from reproducing inside the body; they give the body some breathing space to fight back.
But anti-retrovirals are still not available to everyone who needs their help, especially the poorest of the poor. Drug companies see no profit margin in giving their products away.
We need to bring pressure to bear so that drug companies look beyond the bottom line, cutting their margins and in some cases waiving their profits altogether, in the interests of being humane.
As individuals, organisations and churches, we can also invest time or money with AIDS-related charities. Different organisations focus on different countries and different needs.
Some work directly with AIDS orphans; others educate people about the disease. Some set up advocacy groups for AIDS-related causes, such as the rights of women.
And of course we don't have to travel to Africa to find young people who need to know about the dangers of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Workers in areas of high risk will tell you that one of the biggest weapons against AIDS is education or awareness.
It's vital that people are encouraged to be tested for the disease and that they remain faithful within marriage. The more sexual partners a person has, the more likely they are to contract and pass on the disease - condoms or no condoms.
Britain has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe. Young people are becoming sexually active at a younger and younger age - usually without any real guidance about what that means, physically or emotionally.
In the UK and much of Europe there's a need for organisations that will work to raise awareness of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases in general - and to discourage the young from getting involved with the kind of promiscuous sexual activity that provides their breeding ground.
Over the next decade, finding cures for major diseases may become a matter of survival for a lot more people than it is today. Even in today's high-tech age we basically have no medical protection against viral plague. There is no equivalent of penicillin for viruses.
Today's increasing world population and our high mobility have made us more exposed than ever to the risk of global epidemic. Aside from HIV/AIDS, we're seeing other new viruses emerge, viruses that change shape quickly, developing immunities to our drugs.
People who are suffering the pain of HIV/AIDS, or any other major strain of disease, will need sanctuaries, places of healing both physical and emotional. Community organisations such as churches can be provide those kinds of sanctuaries, as they have often done in the past.
You don't have to be a person of faith to get involved in AIDS care or support. Most people, whatever their beliefs, share the same concerns and commitment.
Yet if, as many Christians believe, the power of Christ is present within the Church to heal sickness or, at the very least, to give solace for those who suffer, the presence of tragic diseases like HIV/AIDS surely represents a positive challenge for faith - a challenge that people faith should rise to meet.
As one song writer put it, "healing is just another word for love."
Keywords: world AIDS day | HIV/AIDS | antiretroviral | anti-retroviral | Mal Fletcher | social commentator | social comment | commentary | killer disease | Uganda
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