HIV Is Incurable, So Don't Stop Caring
At first glance, a comment this week from the head of the HIV/AIDS department of the World Health Organization seems to indicate that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is all but over. In an interview with London's Independent, Dr. Kevin De Cock said, "There will be no generalized epidemic of AIDS in the heterosexual population outside Africa."
Coming on the heels of the UNAIDS report in November 2007 that revised the estimates of those infected with HIV downward from 40 million to 33 million, one could conclude that HIV is no longer a humanitarian crisis.
Not so. As De Cock goes on to say, "AIDS still remains the leading infectious disease challenge in public health. It is an acute infection, but a chronic disease. It is for the very, very long haul. People are backing off, saying it is taking care of itself. It is not."
To me, the larger questions are not about numbers or categories how many people are infected, or whether more homosexuals or heterosexuals are likely to become infected. The reasons I became an advocate for people with HIV six years ago are just as valid as they were then. Not much has changed.
I can think of several compelling reasons why the church of Jesus Christ must care about people with HIV and AIDS whether they're straight, gay, old, young, victim, victimizer, African, Asian, Indian, Latino, or Caucasian. The categories are irrelevant to our call to care.
The most important reason is for the church to care is that it is completely unexpected. When was the last time the church cared about a sexually transmitted disease? Historically, we haven't done a very good job of teaching healthy sex and sexuality, so it isn't surprising that we don't want to talk about HIV and AIDS.
You can't talk about HIV without talking about sex! Because it is a sexually transmitted virus, the stigma is profound. Internationally and in my Southern California backyard, people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS can face divorce, beatings, job loss, rejection, loss of friends, discrimination, and violence. I could fill pages with the tragic stories of men, women, and children who have endured the painful stigma associated with HIV.
Unlike malaria or tuberculosis (which can be cured with $20 worth of medication when caught early enough), HIV is incurable. It is ultimately a fatal disease, ravaging the immune system of the infected person, leaving them vulnerable to opportunistic infections that a normal immune system could deal with.
One piece of good news amid the bad is that HIV is treatable. In the United States and in other developed nations, where life-saving medications are readily available, an HIV positive individual can expect to live a relatively normal life. People in developing nations do not fare so well. Without access to these "wonder drugs," life expectancy after diagnosis can be three to five years.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, I asked my oncologist how I got cancer. Did I do something wrong? Was it genetics? Should I have eaten more broccoli? He told me he had no idea why I got cancer. HIV is different. We know how it is transmitted. That mystery was solved more than 20 years ago, and in the process, we also learned it is almost 100 percent preventable.
The toll HIV and AIDS exerts does not end with claiming the life of the infected person. Children whose parents die prematurely face a bleak future, easily becoming HIV statistics themselves, thus repeating a vicious cycle of infection and death.
If you knew there was an incurable but preventable and treatable disease that brought shame and stigma, created millions of orphans, decimated families, and jeopardized the hard-won development gains of dozens of the nations of our world, wouldn't you care?
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