At the Central Market o Lilongwe, Malawi, Grace sells luxury shoes. She appears happy and healthy. Her cheerful smile, though, hide a tragic story.
In 1993, Grace and her husband were overjoyed at the birth of their daughter, Timmy. At the outset, Timmy seemed to be in good health. Yet, she soon stopped gaining weight and contracted one infection after another. At the age of three, Timmy died from AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
A few years later. Grace’s husband also began to get sick. One day he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Doctors could not save him. Grace’s husband of eight years died of AIDS-related complications.
Grace now lives alone in a one-room house in the suburbs of Lilongwe. One might expect that at 30 years of age, Grace would be beginning to rebuild her life. She, however, explains: “I have got HIV so I will not get married or have any more children.” HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is understood to be the virus that causes AIDS.
SADLY, such experiences are hardly unique in Malawi, where an estimated 15 percent of the populations are infected with HIV. At one rural hospital, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper, “bed occupancy is at 150 per cent of its medical staff” to AIDS. The prevalence of HIV infection is even higher in other countries of sub-Saharan African is currently 47 years. Without AIDS, it would have been 62 years.
The plague of HIV/AIDS, however, is pandemic, extending far beyond the African continent. UNAIDS estimates that some four millions adults in India are infected with HIV, adding: “With the current disease burden, HIV will emerge as the largest cause of adult mortality this decade.”
The pandemic is growing fastest in the Commonwealth of Independent States, a federation composed of most republics of the former Soviet Union. One report says that in Uzbekistan, “more HIV cases were reported in 2002 alone compared to the whole of the previous decade.” HIV infection in the United States continues to be a leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.
In 1986, Dr.H. Mahler, then director of the World Health Organization, warned that some ten million people may have already been infected with HIV. Almost two decades later, the number of HIV cases worldwide has increased to an estimated 42 million, growing at a rate more than ten times the rate of population growth!
Experts suggest that the future looks no less sinister. “In the 45 most affected countries,” reports UNAIDS, “it is projected that, that between 2000 and 2020, 68 million people will die prematurely as a result of AIDS.” Worldwide, an estimated 42million people have HIV/AIDS; 2.5 million are children.
With such an alarming infection rate, a cure for AIDS has never been more urgently needed. Thus, medical researchers have labored tirelessly to combat HIV. What advances have been made in the fight against this deadly plague? Is it reasonable to hope for an end to AIDS?
ADVANCES IN THE FIGHT AGAINST AIDS
“Never in the history of humans has so much been learned about so complex an illness in so short a time,” writes Dr. Gerald J. Stine in his book AIDS Update 2003. He claims that “the history of HIV/AIDS is one of remarkable scientific achievement.” What has been achieved?
Modern medical knowledge and expertise have enabled researchers to develop drug combinations that offer new hope to HIV-infected people. Additionally, AIDS education programs have yielded results in several countries. But does the success of such efforts signal the beginning of the end of this deadly epidemic? Can current scientific and educational endeavors halt the spread of AIDS? Consider the following.
“A Ray of Hope in the Fight Against Aids,” read the headline in the September 29, 1986, issue of Time magazine. This “ray of hope” was generated by the result of a clinical trial using AZIDOTHYMIDINE (AZT), an antiretroviral drug, to treat HIV.
Remarkably, HIV patients who took AZT were living longer. Since that time, antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) have prolonged the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Despite the initial enthusiasm surrounding the release of AZT, Time magazine reported that AIDS researchers “were confident that AZT (was) not the ultimate weapon against AIDS.” They were correct. Some patients were unable to tolerate AZT, so other ARVs were developed.
Later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a combination of ARVs for advanced HIV patients. Combination therapy, which came to involve the taking of three or more antiretroviral drugs, was enthusiastically welcomed by AIDS workers.
In fact, at an international conference on AIDS in 1996, one doctor even announced that the drugs may be able to eliminate HIV entirely from the body! Sadly, within one year it was evident that even strict adherence to the three-drug regimen could not eradicate HIV.
Nonetheless, a report by UNAIDS says that “combination ARV therapy has enabled HIV-positive people to live longer, healthier, more productive lives.” In the United States and Europe, for example, ARV use has reduced AIDS death by 70 percent. In addition, several studies have shown that selected ARV treatment can dramatically reduce HIV transmission from an infected pregnant woman to her child.
Yet, millions of HIV patients are denied access to ARVs.
MYTHS ABOUT AIDS
1. HIV-INFECTED PEOPLE LOOK SICK: On average, it takes about 10 to 12 years for someone infected with HIV to develop AIDS,” says Dr. Gerald J. Stine. During this time, the HIV-infected will show few if any recognizable symptoms, but they are able to infect other people.
2. AIDS IS A HOMOSEXUAL DISEASE. In the early 1980’s, AIDS was initially identified as a homosexual disease. Today, however, heterosexual intercourse is the primary mode of HIV transmission in much of the world.
3. ORAL SEX IS “SAFE SEX.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “numerous studies have demonstrated that oral sex can result in the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.” The risk of HIV transmission through oral sex is not as high as through other sexual practices. Nevertheless, the practice has become so prevalent that some doctors expect it to become a significant route for transmitting HIV.
4. THERE IS A CURE FOR AIDS. Although antiretroviral therapy can, in some patients, slow the progression from HIV to AIDS, there is currently NO vaccine or CURE