Facing Up To The Aids Threat

Much is being said in the country at the moment about the important potential loss of life in any war with Iraq. But little is being made of the fact that more than 8,000 people are dying every day of HIV/AIDS throughout the world. The virus is now truly a global phenomenon but because our nation has largely avoided the mass horror that was predicted we have lost sight of its magnitude.

We may come to regret that fact as the virus raises its deadly head again across our shores but certainly it is a subject that deserves higher attention than it currently gets. In the UK since the virus was first identified more than twenty years ago it is estimated that 12,500 people have died from HIV/AIDS.

The World Aids Day in December last year tried to raise the profile of the subject again to what is now a seemingly disinterested British public. In the House of Commons the Stop Aids Campaign held a reception attended by relatively few parliamentarians probably because it is a subject which has now lost its star in the media firmament.

Not enough high profile and famous people are contracting the disease and for most of the population it appears that it is under control. My concern is that we are being lulled into a false sense of security.

The AIDS anguish in the 1980s was something that was over-hyped by some parts of the community such that when the promised tales of widespread death and destruction did not happen people became disdainful of the continued propaganda…

The problem of HIV/AIDS today is horrendous but the campaigners have lost the moral high ground by the desperate claims, almost twenty years ago, that our nation would already have been laid waste by the epidemic. It did not happen and people in this country have largely turned their backs on the subject. Yet the estimations of infection around the world are mind-boggling.

In a report at the end of last year the World Heath Authority identified a terrifying figure of 42 million people worldwide as living with HIV/AIDS – no fewer than 30 million of them on the continent of Africa. But the global reach of this disease is everywhere with increasing numbers of people being infected in many parts of Asia and Eastern Europe. There is seemingly nowhere that is not facing a major epidemic over the next five years but to the British public we are safe.

Much is made of the capability of the drugs treatments now to mean that HIV infection is not necessarily life threatening. But the real conqueror of the disease has been the lifestyle changes which have been adopted in Western society and the efforts that have been put into educating the public about the danger.

During 2001 there were less than 5,000 new diagnosed victims of HIV in this country of which more than 56% came from heterosexual sex, many from third world African countries where there is truly an epidemic. Another 32% came from sex between men with the remaining 12% from drug use, mother to newborn infant or from an undetermined source.

My fear is that the success of the drugs and the much smaller death toll that the arbiters of gloom predicted are getting people to lower their guard in 2003. Well they must not. In sub-Saharan Africa it is clear that some countries have grasped the nettle and others haven’t. In Uganda and Zambia infection levels are finally declining and that has been due to blistering sex education lessons to the young. Sex has been identified as the killer of so many people in Uganda that nowadays no one stands on ceremony and minces their words. Unprotected sex is a now non-starter.

We all recognise that HIV/AIDS has historically hit hardest at the gay communities in this country and in America with very well-known personalities, especially at the outset, dying in great pain from the virus.

The gay community got its act together and educated many to change their lifestyle in order to thwart the impending epidemic. Today the Terence Higgins Trust calculates that just 54% of the 52,000, who have been diagnosed as HIV positive in the UK since the disease was first identified, had caught the virus through sex between men.

In Britain we learned a hard lesson but the numbers of people that we lost pale into utter insignificance compared to those that are dying every day around the world. The fight is not yet over and it is important that this country does not lower its guard and return to anything like its old complacent ways.