Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble

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Lester R. Brown

Chapter 10. Responding to the Social Challenge: Curbing the HIV Epidemic

The key to curbing the AIDS epidemic is education about prevention. We know how the disease is transmitted. It is not a medical mystery. In Africa, where once there was a stigma associated even with mentioning the disease, countries are beginning to design effective prevention education programs. The first goal is to quickly reduce the number of new infections below the number of deaths, thus shrinking the number of those who are capable of infecting others. 

Concentrating on the groups in a society who are most likely to spread the disease is particularly effective. In Africa, infected truck drivers who travel far from home for extended periods often engage in commercial sex, spreading it from one country to another. They are thus a target group in reducing infections. Sex workers are also centrally involved in the spread of the disease. In India, for example, the country's 2 million female sex workers have an average of two encounters per day, making them a key group to educate about HIV risks and the life-saving value of using a condom.21 

Another target group is the military. After soldiers become infected, usually from engaging in commercial sex, they return to their home communities and spread the virus further. In Nigeria, where the adult HIV infection rate is 6 percent, President Olusegun Obasanjo requires free distribution of condoms to all military personnel. A third important group, intravenous drug users who share needles, figures prominently in the spread of the virus in the former Soviet Republics.22

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, established in 2001, needs $10.5 billion for the next five years. Thus far, it has received pledges of just over $3 billion. The stakes in this game are high. These diseases affect national security, social progress, and the global economy. If failed economies default on their debts, it will affect the entire world.23 

At the most fundamental level, dealing with the HIV threat requires roughly 8 billion condoms a year in the developing world and Eastern Europe. Including those needed for contraception adds another 2 billion. But of the 10 billion condoms needed, only a billion are being distributed, leaving a shortfall of 9 billion. Costing only 3¢ each, or $270 million, the cost/benefit ratio of supplying these condoms must go off the top of the chart. The condom gap is huge, but the costs of filling it are small. In the excellent study entitled Condoms Count: Meeting the Need in the Era of HIV/AIDS, Population Action International notes that "the costs of getting condoms into the hands of userswhich involves improving access, logistics and distribution capacity, raising awareness, and promoting use—is many times that of the supplies themselves." If we assumed that these costs are six times the price of the condoms themselves, filling this gap would still cost only $1.9 billion.24 

Sadly, even though condoms are the only technology available to prevent the spread of HIV, the U.S. government is de-emphasizing their use, insisting that abstinence be given top priority. An effective campaign to stop AIDS cannot function without condoms.25 

One of the few African countries to successfully lower the HIV infection rate after the epidemic became well established is Uganda. Under the strong personal leadership of President Yoweri Museveni, over the last dozen years the share of adults infected has dropped from a peak of 14 percent down to 5 percent. More recently, Zambia appears to be making progress in reducing infection rates among its young people as a result of a concerted national campaign led by church groups. Senegal occupies a position at the front of the pack because it acted early to check the spread of the virus, holding it to less than 1 percent today.26 

The financial resources and medical personnel currently available to treat those who are already HIV-positive are minuscule compared with the number of people who need treatment. For example, of the 29 million people who were HIV-positive in sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2002, only 30,000 were receiving the anti-retroviral drug treatment that is widely available in industrial countries. Africa today is a window on the future of other countries, such as India and China, if they do not respond quickly to contain the virus that is already well established within their borders.27

 

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