World AIDS Day to raise awareness

Total AIDS spending to sub-Saharan Africa amounts to 65 cents per person per year.

by Cati Vanden Breul

An estimated 40 million people worldwide suffer from HIV/AIDS.

Millions more contract the disease each year, with the highest concentration of infections in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations, 15 to 34 percent of adults in the region carry the virus, compared with 0.5 to 1 percent in the United States.

In 2006 alone, almost 3 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses.

Citizens from around the world will unite Friday for World AIDS Day, intended to raise awareness of the epidemic.

In commemoration of the international campaign, the University’s School of Public Health will hold a round table discussion Friday morning at Coffman Union to address the relationship between human rights abuses and the spread of AIDS.

As a medical intern in San Francisco in 1980, School of Public Health professor Alan Lifson saw some of the first cases of HIV. Since then, he’s worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, conducting AIDS research in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Lifson, a keynote speaker at the event, will outline some of the underlying factors behind the increase in international HIV infections.

“Typically, when we discuss HIV, we focus on medical and behavioral factors, such as condom use, STDs, number of partners and so on,” he said. “But it is also important to understand some of the root causes that might be driving an epidemic.”

Poverty, stigmas and poor government policies affect the number of people who become infected with HIV, Lifson said.

The stigmas placed on some groups, he said, such as gay men and drug users, inhibit their ability to learn about AIDS and prevention methods.

“The attitude of many governments is to work with these groups with denial and discrimination, which reduces their ability to intervene with prevention efforts,” Lifson said.

Governments must realize the importance of being open to a variety of strategies when it comes to fighting the AIDS epidemic, he said, combining abstinence education and comprehensive sexual education, such as condom use and reducing numbers of partners. But so far, the Bush administration has pushed abstinence as the only solution, Lifson said.

“By not being open and fully accepting internationally to a variety of strategies,” Lifson said, “I believe that we have really threatened our ability to be effective.”

The United States can no longer afford to ignore global health issues, said Steven Miles, a University Medical School professor who will also speak at the event.

Miles’ work with the American Refugee Committee took him to Cambodia, Sudan and Indonesia. In addition to helping with AIDS prevention in Sudan and tsunami relief in Indonesia, he was the chief medical officer for 45,000 refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Total AIDS spending to sub-Saharan Africa amounts to only 65 cents per person per year, Miles said.

“That’s what, seven or eight condoms?” he asked. “In contrast, we’re spending a huge amount on anthrax programs, a disease that affects virtually nobody, and we are ignoring diseases that affect the entire (global) population.”

In addition to funding, Miles said, the best way to help the countries with the highest infection rates is to teach them to run their own treatment programs.

“The model here has to be one of empowering people to do it themselves Ö because we go away,” he said.

Family social science junior Zondwayo Mulwanda, who has worked the past few summers with HIV-infected children at Camp Heartland in northern Minnesota, said students should be more open to talking and learning about AIDS.

where to go

School and Public health Round table Series
WHAT: HIV/AIDS and human rights discussion
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Coffman Union

“The people who are infected are still human beings; they deserve hope and love like any other person in the world,” said Mulwanda, who added that some of his family and friends have AIDS.

Many students don’t think it could happen to them, he said.

“Go outside of your comfort zone and do the tough things like getting tested or talking to a partner about the disease,” he said. “Talk to people who are infected and get to know them and what they go through every day.”