I'm sure most people have noticed how numbers play this strange trick on the human mind; the higher they get, the less meaning they have. I mean when somebody mentions the size of the American government's deficit as being in the trillions of dollars, does anybody really understand what that means? Or if they do, why aren't they as upset about it as let's say you or I are about our personal debts that may only amount to a few thousand dollars?
The whole 'the higher the number the less it means' concept is especially telling when dealing with casualty figures. While we can get whipped up into a state close to hysteria when we read about the killing of one person, the deaths of millions of people won't cause us to turn a hair. Is it simply a matter of protecting ourselves, in that if we ever let ourselves feel the horror that we should feel from that many deaths we would never stop crying? Or is it because numbers that high are just incomprehensible?
When the death of one person is reported in the news we are usually given details of that person's life. We learn about those left behind to grieve, what they had accomplished to date, and what they have been prevented from accomplishing by their untimely demise. When the death total is from an earthquake or other natural disaster we might be told something about the town or city which has suffered the calamity, and be shown pictures of collapsed buildings, but we won't learn anything about individuals and the grief will stay impersonal.
Currently there are somewhere between 26 and 30 million people infected with the AIDS virus on the continent of Africa. To give you some idea of what that number means, it's the equivalent of saying that nearly the entire population of Canada has AIDS, as we have a population of around 33 million. Those numbers are only estimates, as many governments in Africa are either unable or unwilling to provide an accurate count of the numbers of people with the virus.
A trade paperback edition of Stephanie Nolen's 28: Stories Of AIDS In Africa, that was first published last spring by Random House Canada, being released this April 15, is a timely reminder that there are faces and lives that go with each one of those 26 to 30 million people. Each of them have families, had hopes and dreams that are now withering, just as surely as anyone who is killed in a car accident or a house fire.
In the introduction to the book Ms. Nolen explains her rationale behind choosing twenty-eight as the number of people she would profile in the book — one person for roughly every ten million infected with the AIDS virus. She also says in the same introduction that she fears that even the thirty million figure quoted above is a conservative estimate based on how deeply rooted AIDS has become in Africa and how often she witnessed case numbers far exceeding official estimates in areas she visited researching this book.
In 2003 Ms. Nolen convinced her editors at The Globe And Mail, Canada's national newspaper, to allow her to investigate the AIDS pandemic in Africa. She moved to Johannesburg, South Africa and spent four years traveling across the continent and attending international AIDS conferences, as she struggled to come to grips with the enormity of the situation facing Africans of every race, creed, nationality, and social status.
The amount and depth of her research is obvious when you read the introduction to 28; its probably the best written history of AIDS, not only in terms of Africa, but the disease itself, that I've ever read. The disease did not spring up overnight among North American homosexuals in the early 1980s as I'm sure many believe. The first known human cases of AIDS can be traced back seventy years ago to Cameroon. Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) is a disease found in chimpanzees, an animal that used to be fairly commonly hunted and eaten in Africa. A virus that is non-lethal in one species can be death to another, and such was the case with SIV, which was not particularly dangerous to chimps, but as HIV has proved incurable in humans.