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HIV/AIDS: A primer for our youth

By Phyllis E. Hughes
web posted June 20, 2005

The acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a global pandemic caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The HIV/AIDS pandemic has tyrannized many African countries and has spread to countries such as Russia, Thailand, Australia and Haiti. The pandemic includes all age groups – children, middle-aged, elderly - and members of the well-educated middle class among its victims. High rates of mortality formally limited to the elderly and malnourished are now common among HIV-infected youths and middle-aged people in many developing countries. AIDS is the leading cause of death in Sub-Saharan Africa where approximately 2.3 million adults and children died in 2004.

Many average American youths with fervor for life and sometimes a secular philosophy are unaware of the international HIV/AIDS pandemic. Many believe they would not contract this life-threatening disease if they have casual relations. Our young people are not immune from HIV/AIDS.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Affairs Committee regularly hold hearings on the status of the international HIV/AIDS pandemic and the treatments. Some teachers resolutely escort high school students to the hearings where they become better informed about this potentially deadly disease and how it is spread. Students have heard sometimes shocking but honest testimony about the rise of HIV/AIDS among infants and children and about the symptoms and progression of HIV/AIDS. They have heard sobering facts about its impact and exceedingly high number of deaths in Africa.

President George W. Bush established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003 and recently committed $15 billion to eradicate what Senate Majority Leader William H. Frist, M.D. “believe[s] is the greatest moral, humanitarian and public health challenge of our times.” The President’s commitment includes an annual contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The monies are used to purchase anti-retroviral treatments (ART) that are commonly used to care for patients with HIV/AIDS and the related conditions, Tuberculosis and Malaria. They also are used to finance government programs, and faith-based and non-governmental organizations that work together on a broad range of medical, nutritional, social, educational and economic projects to combat the deadly disease.

The spread of HIV/AIDs particularly is a threat to the economic growth and development of many African countries such as the Republic of Namibia, where 22 percent of sexually active adults are infected with HIV and the annual per capital GDP has averaged 1.6 percent since 1990. Half of the deaths among Namibians between the ages of 15 and 19 and 75 percent of all hospitalizations of Namibians are due to AIDS. In the Republic of Zimbabwe the absenteeism among teachers is higher than among students who are HIV-positive. A study found that 19 percent of male teachers and nearly 29 percent of female teachers were HIV-positive in Zimbabwe. Nearly 17 percent of the teachers in the Republic of Mozambique were infected in 2004. This average is higher than Mozambique’s 13 percent average of HIV-positive citizens aged 15 to 49.

Community caregivers De Villiers Katwya, left and Isaac Botha, right, carry AIDS sufferer, known only as Jacob, center, to transport him to a nearby AIDS hospice in Roodepoort, South Africa, where he died the next day, in July 2004
Community caregivers De Villiers Katwya, left and Isaac Botha, right, carry AIDS sufferer, known only as Jacob, center, to transport him to a nearby AIDS hospice in Roodepoort, South Africa, where he died the next day, in July 2004

HIV/AIDs has reduced the professional middle class in Africa and the statistics are expected to rise annually among teachers and other professionals. It has resulted in high absenteeism among African teachers, students and laborers who take ill, tend to sick families, attend funerals or suffer the psychological effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. When teachers become ill classrooms are combined or left untaught because there is an insufficient supply of teacher to replace the losses. Fewer children receive a basic education because they must care for parents and family members, their families are unable to afford school fees and expenses, and because they themselves are infected.

The majority of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa are between the ages of 15 and 49. The disease limits their ability to work, their productivity in the workplace and depletes the skills needed in the workplace. It also increases healthcare expenses and reduces life expectancy to 47 years for people living with AIDS in some African countries.

The consequences of HIV/AIDS are tremendous. It is not only transmitted by behavioral factors such as recreational drug use and multiple sexual partners or by blood transfusions or by a homosexual lifestyle. In Africa husbands returning from the mines or military duty have infected their wives. Children have been orphaned or displaced because relatives or neighbors cannot care for them. Men have had sexual relations with infants and children because they believe such acts will rid them of the disease. Children have died from HIV/AIDS either because they contracted the disease from their mothers or because of the aforesaid immoral and reprehensible acts.

The United States and other developed countries can help eliminate the devastating impact HIV/AIDS has had on countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Millions of people will die over the next few years without treatment. Many teenagers are not learning about the dangers of HIV or about preventing the spread of HIV. Some teenagers believe there is a cure for AIDS. They are ignorant about HIV/AIDS.

It is refreshing to know that some teachers want their students to learn about HIV/AIDS and willingly escort them to congressional hearings to be educated. Hopefully, this educated group of high school students will keep its their peers and the next generation informed about the most devastating disease of our times. These students can be the AIDS educators who tell others they are neither immune and nor immortal.

Phyllis E. Hughes, Project Coordinator at the Free Congress Foundation, monitored HIV/AIDs legislation for 17 years.

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