AIDS is outrunning us. The annual report of the United Nations' AIDS agency, released last week to mark World AIDS Day today, informs us that this year there will be 5 million new infections, a record, and more than 3.1 million deaths, another record.
The most troubling aspect of the report by the agency, UNAIDS, is its grim evidence that many large countries are still closing their eyes to limited AIDS epidemics that will soon explode into the general population. India is providing numbers no one believes. Russia has the world's fastest-growing epidemic, fueled by intravenous drug abuse. Drug abuse also now accounts for half of China's AIDS cases, and it is spreading AIDS infections rapidly in Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan...
The AIDS story this year is mostly one of failure: the failure of rich countries to give the promised money, the failure of poor nations to muster the political will. All around, it's a failure of leadership.
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine who was a research pathologist was casting about for his next project. I asked him at the time if he'd thought about researching what was then called GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). His words are still accurate: "It will never happen. No one wants to provide funding to cure a disease that only affects IV drug users and anally-active homosexuals."
Well, it's been at least two decades since AIDS was confined to those small populations. A contaminated blood supply - and corporate greed, unwilling to spend the money to protect the blood supply until it was too late - saw to that.
Check out this list of well-known people living with HIV, or who have died from HIV-related illness. The one that blew my mind was Isaac Asimov - one of the all-time great sci-fi writers - who died of AIDS-related surgical complications after being infected with HIV-tainted blood.
We can't afford to be complacent - so far AIDS has killed, or helped kill, more people this year than every other natural disaster...tsunami, flood, hurricane - everything. In 1989, the death of Amanda Blake (Kitty on Gunsmoke) and the 1990 death of Ryan White, a teen-aged hemophiliac, proved to the public that this was no longer a gay or drug-user disease. But because people like Magic Johnson can pay huge amounts of money for anti-retroviral drugs, so many people assume the cure is in hand, and that somehow we don't need to worry any more.
But it's not over. It's not even slowing down. The AIDS Quilt, a memorial created by family and friends of AIDS victims and the Names Project, would now cover multiple football fields if it were all brought together.
Wear the red ribbon. Make a contribution. Make your voice heard, that we will not remain silent in the face of this disease.