The AIDS Challenge

Article excerpt

This World AIDS Day we were greeted by new, more accurate data from the World Health Organization (WHO) confirming the astonishing scope of the global epidemic: Some 40 million are now infected, with 5 million new infections and 3 million deaths in 2003 alone. AIDS is the greatest health crisis in human history--it has long since dwarfed the black plague--and it threatens to become a profound political and economic crisis as well. As Colin Powell said to mark the day, "AIDS can lay waste to whole countries and destabilize entire regions of the world." Yet within living memory for most of us, AIDS was no more than a small outbreak affecting a few dozen gay men in Los Angeles and New York.

The containment of SARS shows what is possible. By contrast, the AIDS epidemic became what it is today because of a criminal failure of political will. Home to the first identified cases, with enormous resources at its disposal, the United States had a special role to play in halting AIDS while it was still manageable. But because the dying were primarily gay men and drug users, Ronald Reagan wasted most of his presidency without publicly acknowledging the disease. By the time he finally did, in 1987, AIDS had gone global. When antiapartheid leader Thabo Mbeki became president of South Africa, the destructive force of AIDS there was unmistakable; but he, too, dithered away precious years in denial, blocking the efforts of activists to make medicines available. Until recently, the Chinese government responded to its emerging AIDS crisis by jailing those who dared to speak the truth about the nation's rising number of infections.

But the tide is beginning to turn. Thailand and Brazil have become models within the developing world, the former for its energetic campaign of condom promotion, the latter for its aggressive use of discounted and generic drugs to treat its entire AIDS population. China recently abrogated its own obscenity laws to run television ads about condom use and launched a pilot program to treat impoverished people with AIDS. South Africa has begun implementing a national plan to provide HIV medicines as widely as it can afford. India has announced its first large-scale drug treatment program, an effort to treat some 100,000 of its more than 4 million infected. Former President Clinton has just brokered a deal under which four drug companies will reduce the price of AIDS drugs to poor countries. And with George Bush's $2. …