Last Sunday, August 13/06, 24,000 people descended upon Toronto, Ontario Canada from 130 countries worldwide. To gather that many people from that many places and from so many different strata's of the population usually requires something pretty important. This was no exception: the 16th International AIDS Conference was being held there until Friday the August 18.
These conferences are convened every other year by the International AIDS Society, an independent organization of HIV professionals with 7,000 members from countries all over the world. Aside from thousands of men and women who work with and suffer from the disease figures from politics, business and the entertainment worlds were on hand to give speeches and lend their support. Governor General Michaelle Jean of Canada (a Haitian by nationality, one of the countries hardest hit by the virus), U .N. special envoy for AIDS Steven Lewis, former Microsoft C. E. O. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, former United States President Bill Clinton, and actors Richard Gere, Sandra Oh, and Olympia Dukasis.
Notably absent from the proceedings was anybody from the host country's Conservative Party of Canada's government. In a lot of cases the host's country's leader will make an appearance, at least to make it look like he or she cares, but Steven Harper couldn't even be bothered with sending a representative of his government. In fact his Minister of Health, Tony Clement, went out of his way to discredit the conference by referring to participants as activists and "so-called experts" who have skewed dialogue towards grandstanding political demands.
I wonder if Mr. Clement and his fellow Conservative Party members even noticed what the title of the conference's theme was this year; Time To Deliver. The whole purpose was to offer opinions on how well governments and non-governmental agencies were following through on promises and what if any progress was being made in the fight against the disease worldwide.
Politicians of all stripes, left, right, and moderate, have equally abysmal records when it comes to fighting the disease either in their home country or abroad. Whether it's because of political reasons like owing the pharmaceutical companies for their support in an election or so-called moral issues where talking about sex belongs in the home not in public for the right, or being too damn wishy-washy to do anything at all for the liberals, it hasn't mattered. Millions of people were allowed to, and are still being allowed to, die needlessly.
Before I get too hot under the collar. I should warn you now, if you haven't guessed already, I'm one of those Mr. Clement would accuse of skewing the dialogue towards political grandstanding. If by calling for governments to get off their fat asses and put their money on the table or be honest enough to say they don't care if people die or not is political grandstanding than I'm guilty as charged and proud of it.
The world has known about AIDS since the late 1970's and clued in to the fact that anybody could get it, not just a few blacks and gay men in the mid 1980's, but look at the statistics. Nearly 40 Million people are currently infected with the AIDS virus and 25 Million have died from it already. All this while the majority of politicians fund studies on how to best spend money on the disease or give money to research that will discover drugs that most patients won't be able to afford for twenty-five years when a generic drug comes on the market.
The thing is that no matter where a government claims it stands on fiscal responsibility, in all reality it is far easier to throw money at something than to actually commit to doing anything. But that's what makes a disease different from most other problems a government faces; people can't forget about it if it disappears for a few days from the front pages, because somebody is always going to be catching it and dying from it.
Throwing money at it in the hopes that will distract people will only work for so long before you actually have to do something practical. For AIDS, just like any other disease there are three avenues open for action: prevention, treatment, and cure. Not that difficult to figure out is it, but the real problem comes in the implementation, especially for number one on the list, prevention.
Everybody, repeat after me: "How is AIDS transmitted? Through the exchange of bodily fluids". Of course there are many different ways that humans can exchange bodily fluids but two of the more common ones are sex and the sharing of needles. Actually it's a little more complicated than just an exchange of bodily fluids, because the fluids have to enter into your blood stream. It can be the smallest of abrasions or scratches, but if those fluids don't meet up with a blood cell somewhere they won't be transmitting any disease.
As a quick addendum; in recent years we have started to see the horror of children being born HIV positive because their parent was infected during their pregnancy. But this is still an example of a means for bodily fluids to be exchanged as the foetus is nurtured inside the mother's womb via the body. I don't know if it's been figured out at what point the foetus becomes infected with the virus in terms of development and length of time in the womb, or if the egg itself is infected.
Would an in-vitro pregnancy (one where a fertile egg from another source is "planted" in the womb) become infected if the host parent were HIV positive? I would assume yes, because of the nature of how the foetus is fed, but I don't know.
In any event prevention in areas where human intervention can occur, is the big hot topic issue facing the world right now. One argument takes the view that since pre-marital sex is wrong and shouldn't occur and that birth control is a sin, the only way to prevent the transmission of the disease is through complete abstinence until you find the person you plan on spending the rest of your life and procreating with. While that's all well and good for those who believe that, and more power to them because we should respect everyone's belief systems, the problem is that these people seem insistent on making others follow their own rigid code of behaviour.
But since the vast majority of the world doesn't live that way it's highly unrealistic to demand that they do, and in fact to do so is the equivalent of saying we don't care about anyone who doesn't believe in what we believe. It wouldn't be so bad if it were only a few individuals who were like this, who didn't have any real power, but unfortunately it happens to be two of the wealthiest and most powerful forces on the face of the earth that are against advocating the use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of AIDS.
Neither the current United States administration or the Catholic Church allow a cent of money to be given to any organization that admits people might actually be having sex outside of marriage. Okay that's not really fair I know their argument is that they believe having condoms available will increase the likelihood of both pre and extra-marital sex.
The Catholic Church even goes one better by saying that the only reason for you to have sex is to procreate so why would you need condoms anyway. Sex isn't for fun, or an expression of love towards another person, or just because you happen to be horny, it's part of your obligation to God to go forth and multiply.
There's no point in even trying to talk same–sex relationships with these folk, because the obvious procreation element is missing from the equation. Probably gays can go ahead and use condoms because their souls are going straight to hell anyway, so in for a nickel…
The same, if it's not available people won't do it logic, is applied by the majority of these same parties to the issues of needle exchanges and safe injection sites for intravenous (I. V.) drug users. These folk are probably the lowest on the sympathy totem pole for the public at large. "Gays can't help themselves, they're perverts, but these guys choose to become junkies – to hell with them". Now I admit I'm not the biggest fan of junkies myself, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve my compassion.
Safe injection sites will keep them off the streets, will cut down on the number of dirty needles left laying around for people, especially kids, to be hurt with, and give users access to help to get clean. Most addicts are addicts because they figure nobody cares about them, perhaps it’s a long shot, but if they're shown some compassion they may start to take an interest in surviving and kicking the habit.
I don't think knowing there is a ready supply of clean needles is going to convince someone that heroin is all of a sudden their drug of choice. True it is aiding and abetting an illegal activity, but I bet if you ask a street cop if he or she would prefer junkies off the streets in a place where they aren't causing a problem, or shooting up in a park and leaving their used needles laying around they would go with the former.
Aside from prevention the next big issue that needs addressing is treatment. There are two parts to this problem; the task of taking care of the patient and the availability of the drugs needed to treat the disease.
For most of us in North America or the rest of the "developed" world, patient care might seem sort of obvious so we take it for granted. But for the countries hardest hit, like Uganda, and other African nations, poverty and lack of education are two of the biggest stumbling blocks preventing individuals from getting proper home care, and can actually contribute to the spread of the disease.
What is needed, and what is being attempted by such organizations like the Steven Lewis Foundation is the setting up and funding of local neighbourhood facilities that provide basic materials like sterile disposable gloves and cleaning materials for tending to patients in the home and instruction on how to go about tending to the specific requirements of an AIDS patient. These types of front line programs aren't very sexy but they are what's most needed in the small rural communities of Africa that might not even have running water.
The next step in the equation of home care is ensuring a consistent supply of medication. There is no point in giving people only enough drugs for a while, they are going to need it for the rest of their lives or until a cure is discovered. This means governments the world over need to apply pressure to pharmaceutical companies to surrender their patents on AIDS medications or cut their prices down to level of the generic companies.
Finally public funded research needs to be ongoing until a cure is found, and a means of ensuring that everyone who is infected with the disease is given access to that cure. It can't be a patented medicine someone will make a fortune from that poorer countries can't afford. It has to be readily available to all who need it; otherwise the disease will continue to spread.
As we have learned from other viruses the longer a disease is given to spread, the more likely it is to mutate into new and more virulent forms. If that were to happen with the AIDS virus we would be right back where we started from thirty years ago when the first cases were being reported.
Are conferences like the International AIDS Conference of any use? Are they just opportunities for people to "political grandstand" as Mr. Clement put it? The answer to both questions is yes. They are of use because they are opportunities to political grandstand.
Due to the attitudes of people like Mr. Clement and others who seem to think that imposing their beliefs, or financial and political considerations are more important than the health of 40 million people infected with a virus, grandstanding may be the only way to save lives and prevent the spread of the infection. At least they care enough to not stand on the sidelines and watch like the Canadian government did this past week.
Have you noticed when governments disagree with what a non-government organization says or does, they use words akin to what Mr. Clement used in an attempt to diminish their credibility. I'm not sure which people he was referring to as "so-called" experts: the Governor General of Canada, The U. N. special envoy for AIDS, thousands of health care workers, or the people suffering from AIDS?
The Canadian government had a wonderful opportunity to unveil their new policy in regards to AIDS during this past week at this conference. Instead they chose not to send a representative at all, had the Minister Of Health publicly criticize the participants and the conference findings, and will announce their plans for AIDS funding next week.
I would say be afraid very afraid but it's too sad to be funny anymore. What will it take for these people to notice that millions of people have died and millions more are infected and could die? What will it take for them to be compassionate?