With so much of the world’s attention naturally focussed on current issues of war and peace, HIV/AIDS may seem like just one of the many difficulties humanity faces — but we cannot neglect it. This disease devastates millions of lives around the globe every day. It requires a powerful and collective response.
The leaders of the United States of America and India have recognized that HIV/AIDS is a scourge that must be dealt with directly and massively. President George W. Bush has said that “We resolve to stand together as a nation and with the world to fight HIV/AIDS on all fronts. We resolve to provide the resources to combat HIV/AIDS. And we resolve to ensure that those suffering with HIV/AIDS receive effective care and treatment, compassionate understanding, and encouraging hope.” Atal Bihari Vajpayee has voiced a similar view when he stressed that “the rapidly spreading disease of HIV/AIDS has become a grave challenge to our nation. I appeal to all sections of the society to fully participate in building awareness about the epidemic.”
The HIV/AIDS outbreak in India is real, and some fear it is only just beginning its silent and deadly onslaught. By not moving quickly enough, other nations have been engulfed by this plague, including nine countries in southern Africa that have estimated infection rates of between 15 and 39 per cent. Today, UNAIDS judges that 42 million people are infected worldwide, and that 25 million have already died from the disease. A conference recently held in Calcutta, supported by the United States Agency for International Development, highlights the importance of vigilance and action to address this killer in new and innovative ways.
The meeting addressed the first major study of HIV/AIDS in the Northeast in over 10 years. While the specific focus was the impact of intravenous drug use on the spread of the disease, the event served a perhaps more important purpose of bringing together the leading stakeholders in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the Northeast.
Dithering can be fatal
National and state government officials, NGOs and international organizations came together to discuss the study’s results; how lessons learned from other parts of India could be applied in that region; and methods to build public and private partnerships to battle the disease. No single organization can solve this crisis alone. That is why proceedings such as the Calcutta get-together are so crucial. All citizens should have relevant information to protect themselves. But according to the government of India’s 2001 Behavioral Surveillance Survey, many Indians have not received this data. While 76 per cent of Indians may have heard of HIV/ AIDS, in some rural areas, less than 30 per cent of women know about the disease. People living with HIV/AIDS are also often victims of an unfounded stigma. The misguided condemn them for “bringing the disease upon themselves”. HIV/AIDS is transmitted in many ways. It does not discriminate. People do.
As the world’s top donor nation in the campaign against HIV/AIDS and the leader in bilateral assistance programmes to contain the contagion, the US is also the largest public sector investor in HIV/AIDS research in the world; and the biggest benefactor to the global fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
In the context of the transformed US-India relationship, the US has made it a priority to work with India on this calamity. Since 1998, the US government has dedicated $ 63 million to combating HIV/AIDS in India. Over the next five years, the total American government contribution will be $ 120 million. In addition to this direct assistance on prevention and care, Washington is funding joint US-India research projects and scientific collaboration to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine. Bush and Vajpayee both fully understand that everything possible must be done to end this global pandemic. It is now time for the rest of us to come to the same conclusion. If not today, when' Every day that we dither, more are infected. More die.