Wednesday, December 01, 2004

A Holistic Approach to the AIDS Epidemic

If you don't know, December 1st is World AIDS Days. I have to admit, I don't think so much about this epidemic throughout the year, but I have been keeping track of some major occurances relative to fighting the disease. With almost 38 million people living with HIV and AIDS, it's difficult sometimes, to imagine how to tackle such a big problem, but there are certainly some significant things which have been accomplished and which will hopefully slow down the progression of this disease.

Here's just one development in Brazil involving drug production. It was big news last year when Indian firms began producing generic AIDS drugs for use in countries like South Africa. The Brazillian news is important because Brazil is actually part of the WTO and is legally breaking patents on these AIDS drugs because it is a national emergency. Right now, Indian firms don't have to deal with that, but Brazil's steps are good news in a world when multi-nationals often have more control over the lives of people than their governments do.

But the fight against AIDS isn't just about producing drugs. Afterall, those drugs need to get into the hands of the right people, at the right time, on a frequent enough basis to really make a difference. Moreover, fighting AIDS isn't just about treating people currently afflicted with HIV/AIDS, the true fight requires a much more holistic approach. In fact, Brazil and Thailand are at the leading edge of fighting the disease. Thailand has used somewhat draconian laws and strict enforcement to fight the disease. Perhaps not the most "free" way of going about things, but lessons can certainly be learned.

You can read about some of the challenges faced in India as the country is just coming to grips with the enormity of the task and the size of the potential problem. India is second only to South Africa in terms of reported cases of infection (5.3 million in India vs. 5.6 million in South Africa), but those numbers are really just the tip of the iceberg. More likely, there are many, many more infected but not reported. Also, with a population as large as India's, this is a disease which can spread very fast and quickly infect more people than malaria.

We always hear about the slow response to fighting AIDS, but some folks interviewed in this article make some great points about fighting AIDS:
  • Government may fund and support AIDS treatment, but they usually crimalize the activities which are associated with the spread of AIDS such as prostitution and gay sex. The interviewees don't advocate legalizing prostituion, but they argue that simply tearing down brothels won't make the problem go away. In fact, it may encourage the spread of the disease. So before legislating such things, they state that the entire picture of prevention and treatment needs to be taken into account.
  • Various Ministries need to be involved in a concerted effort since AIDS is not just a health problems. As quoted in the article, the World Bank's Shanta Devarajan states

“India was going through a similar phenomenon to southern Africa — of thinking of HIV/AIDS as mainly a health problem, for the Health Ministry to handle,” he says. But, he adds, Africa has shown that an effective fight against the disease requires the will of the whole government. At minimum, the finance minister has to be involved, because of allocation of resources (involved in) mitigating disease and caring for the ill," says Devarajan. "If trucking is how (the disease) is transmitted, you want the Transportation Ministry involved. The Education Ministry (should also be involved) since the schools can be a major opportunity for teaching children.”

So what can we do? Well, obviously there are so many non-profits out there which are doing great work. Just like so many other great causes, you can donate your time or money. At the least, read up. Knowing about this fight can only help.

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