Global Scourge: The AIDS Crisis in the Developing World

Article excerpt

JIM MEEKS, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review

After reading newspaper beadlines and listening to the rhetoric of public bealth officials, politicians, and pharmaceutical companies, the US public appears to have justified optimism: after nearly two decades of annually increasing death counts, AIDS (Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome) appears to be a defeatable disease after all. This year in the United States, deaths from AIDS-related symptoms fell by 44 percent from last year; last year's statistics indicate a 14 percent decrease from the year before. This marks the first two-year decline since the onslaught of the epidemic was observed in the early 1980s.

Doctors and officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have attributed this remarkable trend to the advent of new prescription pharmaceuticals recently introduced into the market. Although no cure has been found, a steady diet of what are known as "drug cocktails"--mixtures of newer drugs called protease inhibitors (such as the antivirals 3TC and d4T, Bactrima, and Viarcrat) with the older AZT treatment--can raise the T-cell count of AIDS patients to sustainable levels, thus increasing the patients' life spans. (T-cells are the immuno cells the virus destroys). The result has been a decrease in AIDS-related deaths across all demographic groups in the United States. Additionally, state governments and the federal government have substantially subsidzied the cost of the treatment to low-income carriers of the virus. Yet the optimistic numbers have prematurely led public officials and the public to believe that the fight against AIDS, the deadliest sexually transmitted disease in modern history, is coming to an end. In reality, the worst is yet to come.

While the United States' AIDS death count has fallen by nearly 50 percent, the world death count has increased by 50 percent; as the United States is winning its first battles in the nearly two decade long battle with AIDS, the rest of the world has steadily regressed in the struggle. With 30 million people infected, and 2.3 million dying annually, the continued threat of the disease's spread in developing nations and its predicted explosion in modernizing nations demands that developed nations continue to fight to prevent its spread in less developed parts of the world.

Underestimating the Problem

The optimism of new advances in the United States hardly affects the developing nations of Africa and Southeast Asia. In fact, the news is getting steadily worse. The United Nations announced in a recent study that their prior estimates of the international growth rate of AIDS were grossly understated--the study shows that 16,000 people a day are infected with the virus, as opposed to the previously estimated figure of 8,200. To date, 2.7 million children have died from AIDS worldwide; last year alone, the disease claimed 460,000 children. Four million people in India suffer from HIV infection. In South Africa, 12 percent of all adults (approximately three million people), are infected with HIV, double the percentage of three years ago. In sub-Saharan Africa, the location of 90 percent of the world's AIDS-related deaths, the disease will claim at least 20 million more lives. More startling, 90 percent of African patients are unaware of their infection because of the lack of available testing. These numbers, alarming for any population, are especially dangerous for developing nations. Whereas the disease in the United States represents a devastating public health liability, AIDS is not only dangerous to those infected in developing nations, but, as a recent report from the World Bank stated, it is significantly "reversing decades of progress in improving the quality of life" in those nations. In Zimbabwe, for example, the proliferation of AIDS among the younger population has reduced the average life expectancy by 22 years.

The most devastating repercussions, however, concern the next generation. …