HIV/AIDS: Human folly and triumph

Today is World AIDS Day. HIV has taken the lives of an estimated 29 million people around the world, and currently around 34 million people are infected. The effort of many individuals, organizations, and governments has led to a turnaround in the pandemic, infection rates and deaths due to AIDS are falling in most parts of the world. Still, there is a long way to go, and many people still do not have access to life-saving drugs.

A new book by Jacques Pepin, The Origins of AIDS, provides a remarkable account of how HIV initially spread among populations in central Africa, and later became the pandemic we know today. His sobering finding is that human efforts to treat and prevent disease with the use of non-sterilized syringes in colonial Africa very likely facilitated early and rapid HIV transmission. I discuss his work in this week’s column, excerpts of which is below.

HIV/AIDS: Human folly and triumph (published in this week’s Independent Rwanda Edition)

This year marks the 90th anniversary, approximately, of the introduction of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) into the human population. It also marks thirty years since HIV was first scientifically recognized in 1981. Since the 1920s, this virus has spread across the globe and become the HIV/AIDS pandemic we are all too familiar with today. Most people consider the 1980s to be the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the virus had been prevalent in populations living in parts of central Africa for decades before it became a global nightmare.

New evidence from epidemiologist and international health expert Jacques Pepin suggests that human efforts to improve public health in central Africa were critical in facilitating the early spread of HIV, which has since claimed nearly 30 million lives. In the past two decades, massive coordination, mobilization, innovation, and investment have managed to slow the epidemic and save millions. As we mark World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011, HIV/AIDS is a reminder to us all of the tremendous power of human folly, but also of human triumph.

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Turning the tide on the spread of HIV/AIDS has taken decades, and millions have tragically lost their lives in the process. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic also demonstrates the amazing power of human innovation and cooperation that can take place on a global scale. Today, there are 6.6 million people receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and both AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are declining in most parts of the world. The time, research, energy and money that have gone into tackling HIV has been phenomenal. If anything, we are now in danger of devoting too few resources to other health challenges that must also vie for the attention of the global health community and domestic health budgets.

HIV/AIDS is an extraordinarily painful reminder of the good intentions that can pave the road to hell, and of the unique capability of humans to create as well as destroy.

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