Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Environmentalists Respond to AIDS: Earth Island Project Battles the Disease by Encouraging Small-Scale, Healthy Farming

Magazine article Earth Island Journal

Environmentalists Respond to AIDS: Earth Island Project Battles the Disease by Encouraging Small-Scale, Healthy Farming

Article excerpt

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has grabbed recent headlines with its flurry of deaths and politically sensitive quarantines. The highly infectious Ebola virus is a particularly gruesome and frighteningly swift killer. But no newly emergent disease has had a greater impact on global society than Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Incurable and fatal, with a latency period long enough for the infected to unknowingly spread the disease to perhaps hundreds of people, AIDS has taken a dreadful toll around the world. Alone among the new diseases of the last 50 years, it has taken a place with malaria, influenza, bubonic plague, and the handful of other ailments with death tolls in the millions.

AIDS' devastation is nowhere more obvious than in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty and lack of access to health care--among many other factors---have allowed the disease to spread unchecked through country after country.

But there is a small bit of good news. A number of organizations, including Earth Island Institute's Global Service Corps, are taking innovative steps to mitigate the worst aspects of AIDS. By helping affected communites ensure a supply of locally-grown nutritious food, GSC and its colleagues are hoping they can delay the progression of AIDS in people with little access to sophisticated antiviral therapies. With luck, these groups might help some of the ill buy time until a cure is found.

Staggering loss of life

The UN estimates that 42 million people worldwide were infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)--the virus that causes AIDS--at the end of 2002. In that year, 3.1 million people died of AIDS, bringing the disease's total worldwide mortality to 28 million.

In this era in which the death toll from a single storm can reach into the tens of thousands, it might be helpful for the reader whose eyes glaze over at mortality numbers to find a measuring rod to tell us just how big a crowd 28 million people is. It's the total population of Canada, for instance. Or California. If that many people jogged single-file past you at one per second, the last person would go by a bit more than 46 weeks later. If you were to design an AIDS memorial similar to the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC, you would need black marble walls 22 miles long to hold the names of all the dead.

Here's another fact about the number 28 million: that's how many people in sub-Saharan Africa are now infected with HIV, according to best current estimates. Seventy percent of HIV-infected people live in Africa, mostly south of the Sahara. The prevalence of AIDS isn't a tragedy just for people who are infected: the disease erodes the very economic underpinnings of affected African societies.

In the US and other wealthy countries, the ill have better access to tools to cope with the virus: antiretroviral drug therapies and treatments for opportunistic infections; doctors, clinics and hospitals; clean drinking water; and healthful food. By working with a doctor on a drug regimen, eating nutritous food and exercising, while engaging in basic sanitary practices, HIV-infected people in the developed world can live with the virus for years.

But in the developing world, it's much harder to appeal AIDS' death sentence. Pharmaceutical companies are only lately beginning to make antiretroviral drugs available at near-cost prices in poor countries, and even then, the drugs are priced well out of reach of many. In Africa, where women may walk for miles each day to get to the nearest well or stream, clean water for drinking--let alone washing--is often a rarity.

Thus proper nutrition is sometimes the only defense Africans have against HIV once infection occurs. And in much of Africa, getting a nutritious diet might be easier said than done. "The nutritional aspect of HIV/AIDS has been ignored for a long time," says Kraisid Tontisirin, director of the Food and Agriculture Organization's Food and Nutrition Division. …

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