By the time you finish reading this sentence, fifty people will have died of AIDS and eighty-five will be newly infected with HIV. These numbers are astounding, yet December 1—World AIDS Day—seemed to quietly slip by. Given that HIV/AIDS is the deadliest disease of our time, shouldn't more attention be focused on fighting this global pandemic?
More than 22 million people worldwide have lost their lives to AIDS, and at least 42 million are currently living with HIV/AIDS. Nine out of every ten of those living with the infection are adults in their productive and reproductive prime. The hardest-hit countries are in sub-Saharan Africa, where the epidemic has reversed decades of progress in combating mortality and has compromised the living conditions of future generations.
In Botswana, for example, one in every three adults is HIV positive. Life expectancy in Botswana reached sixty-five years in 1995, according to the United Nations, but it has recently dropped to forty years as a direct result of AIDS. Furthermore, population projections show that there will be a severe deficit of working-age people by 2025.
The spread of HIV/AIDS is not isolated to Africa. The illness has established deep roots in the most populous countries of the world. Approximately one million people are currently infected with HIV in China and six million in India.
The destructive effects of the epidemic have imposed a heavy burden not only on families and communities but also on the economies of the world. HIV/AIDS threatens the livelihoods of workers and those who depend on them. In doing so, it also weakens national economies. Through illness and death, the pandemic has reduced the skill and experience of the labor force. This loss in human capital threatens the capacity of economies to produce and deliver goods and services on a sustainable basis. According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization, the global workforce has lost 28 million people of working age since the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Moreover, the United Nations estimates that, in many of the highly affected countries, the impact of AIDS on economic growth has led to annual reductions of 2 to 4 percentage points in gross domestic product per year.
The effects of the virus go well beyond gross domestic product and economic performance to include the long-term impacts on welfare and development. The well-being of future generations is jeopardized as children are orphaned or forced to leave school to work or care for sick family members. This cycle not only threatens posterity but in the end, the ability to tackle the AIDS dilemma.
Recent figures show that HIV/AIDS is outpacing actions to arrest it. Because the epidemic is at different stages across the world, no single action is appropriate for all settings. Nevertheless, the direct and indirect costs of inaction are far greater than the costs of treatment.
Senegal serves as an example of a country where aggressive action in the battle against AIDS has paid off. The prevalence rate of HIV infections among adults has been kept at between 1.77 and 1.74 percent—this compares to rates of between 20 percent and 30 percent in other African countries. The reasons for this success lie in Senegal's early response to the disease.
Instead of denying the reality of the danger of HIV/AIDS, Senegal's government took energetic measures to prevent the spread of the infection through preventive action, care of AIDS patients, and the mobilization of people at all levels, including teachers, soldiers, women, religious leaders, and non-governmental organizations. Furthermore, Senegal's long experience with democracy and its freedom of the press made it possible to openly discuss and easily spread the word about the dangers of the epidemic.
Although there is still no cure for HIV/AIDS, the course of the disease can be altered by individuals, communities, and nations responding to the threat by encouraging effective prevention initiatives and by finding new ways to fight the pandemic.