‘A friend of mine is dying of AIDS’ By Dr Steve Surujbally
Guyana Chronicle
July 5, 2002

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THE Americans are celebrating the 226th anniversary of their independence, and it would have been most apposite for me to dedicate a viewpoint to this achievement. However, the United States of America surely doesn’t need any accolades from me - the vassals and sycophants will be lining up to offer praises to the greatest State on earth, perhaps - if one were to include the cultural domination - the greatest Imperium the world has ever seen.

But, no. A friend of mine is dying of AIDS. So there is where the focus will be today. You know, dear listeners, until great tragedy strikes close to home, one never pays serious attention to the trauma. It is always someone else’s problem. Well, slowly, insidiously, cryptically this overpowering, all encompassing disease is defining the way we go about our daily lives, the way we choose a partner, the way we behave within a marriage, the way we love, the way we think and act.

In the 20-plus years since the conscious recognition of this scourge, the disease has become pandemic and has stolen a generation and imperils our future. Globally, 40 million, and counting are HIV-positive. It has become the leading cause of death on the African continent - beating malaria and sleeping sickness, two of the continent’s great killers. In India, we hear that the figure related to infections is “only” 0.7 per cent of the population. Well, that translates to four million persons within the adult population. And let us not be fooled by such generous numerals. Anytime the infection is allowed to climb a few percentage points, the consequence will be an almost unstoppable acceleration of the disease spread that would affect tens of millions. And since socially, culturally, familially, many Asian societies tend not to discuss these matters openly and freely, one can, with some accuracy, speculate that Asia is teetering on the edge of an AIDS explosion. China is already, predicting six million HIV-positive cases by 2005.

In the Caribbean, (and to paraphrase one of TV’s truly unique personalities: I hope the Heads of Governments are listening), our society and our cultural and behavioural mores represent a nutritive broth for HIV spread. Our infection rate is much higher than the global average, and in some States, Guyana included, the figures pertaining to HIV incidence (those that we know) are truly scary. Our leaders had better let it penetrate their skulls that this disease robs economies of their workers, cheats children of their parents and places immense strain on all who have to offer support and pick up the pieces.

So what can we do? What do we do? I recall, in the mid-eighties, one hysterical William F. Buckley, Jr. advocated tattooing the buttocks and forearms of AIDS infected persons. Cuba, that paragon of human health care, has implemented the system of testing and isolation. Whole communities have been developed in which HIV-positive persons live together and away from the rest of society. This methodology may be considered to be extreme even successful, but the jury is still out relative to its efficacy and acceptability. And I am not placing great hopes on medication. That is at best a stopgap measure. I dare say that vaccine production will be the answer in the future, and this thrust must be supported. Unfortunately, like so many other disease agents (the malaria-causing organism is a classic example), the AIDS virus foils the scientists by simply making a miniscule alteration of a surface protein structure.

Similarly counter productive are those religionists with their negative rhetoric about God’s wrath and apocalypse. They are only spreading resignation and defeatism. They peddled the same humbug in the Middle Ages during the Black Death and during the Spanish-flu epidemic of 1918.

No, we must be more positive in our approach. Within this context, the Botswana experience may be worthy of study. There, more than one in three adults were HIV-positive. The democratically elected and relatively graft-free government, recognising the economic devastation that lay ahead if serious combative measures were not undertaken, placed its economic assets - diamonds and cattle - at the disposal of its health care and education systems. Last year, Newsweek published an article which advised that Botswana’s political class, secure in power with a stable democracy worked with foreign multi-nationals, AIDS-oriented foundations, NGOs, and its civic sector in making the fight against AIDS top priority. To its credit, the government openly challenged the traditional taboo against the discussion of sexual matters. AIDS awareness permeates every aspect of Botswanian society. Already figures are emerging which are showing that not only is the incidence of HIV infection decreasing, but the average life expectancy is on the calculatable rise.

Focusing on the Court of Justice, the Single Market and Economy and crime is surely laudable; but allow me to urge the Community’s leaders to zero in on methodologies to combat this brutal and efficient enemy of our States.