July 31, 2004
Around 1985, French and American scientists after some years of research put a name to the virus that led to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), which had been taking the lives of mostly gay men since the early 1980s. At around the same time that they came up with Human Immuno-deficiency Virus, they identified azidothymidine (AZT) and didanosine (DDI) as treatment options to delay the onset of AIDS, thus prolonging the lives of HIV-infected people.
It was understood back then that HIV eventually progressed to AIDS, which was identified by a series of opportunistic infections attacking the weakened immune system any number of which led to certain death. Because HIV seemed to affect a group of people who were frowned upon and ostracised, the disease also came to be frowned on and people who contracted it were discriminated against.
On Wednesday, when the World Health Report was launched at the Georgetown Hospital Compound came the haunting picture of Joseph Jeune, a poor Haitian farmer who looked like he was in his late fifties. He was in the advanced stage of AIDS and he was diagnosed with HIV and tuberculosis. Gaunt and dribbling, his skin was pock-marked with generalised dermatitis. A second picture of the same man taken six months later showed a smiling, healthy-looking 26-year-old, who spoke of having received the miracle of antiretroviral treatment. The course of this young man's life had been changed.
In 2003, the World Health Organisation, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis had declared the lack of access to antiretroviral drugs, a global health emergency, and launched an effort to provide three million people like Joseph Jeune (living in developing countries) with these drugs by 2005. They called it the 3 by 5 Initiative and the World Health Report dubbed it "one of the most ambitious public health projects ever conceived." And it is. The project does not only cater for providing these much-needed drugs, it also speaks of long-term care and using the treatment as an entry point to expanding the spread of the prevention message.
It is estimated that there are somewhere between 34 million and 46 million people in the world who are living with HIV and most of them live in developing countries. WHO estimates that of these nearly six million people need treatment in order to live and only 400,000 accessed it in 2003.
Some developing countries, Guyana included, have already begun to implement their own programmes, which offer free antiretroviral drugs. And while they will need assistance it would not be as much as would be needed in other countries where there are no systems in place. But the full magnitude of what is to be accomplished is only evident when one does the math (3,000,000 x - tablets x - treatment years). If it is accomplished, and we must hope that it is, the very real possibility exists that people living with HIV will remain just that. They will join the ranks of those suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension: using medication to control the level of the virus in their bodies; eating the recommended foods; getting the necessary exercise and eventually dying of old age. The number of new infections will also drop as there will be fewer mother-to-child transmissions and the shroud of secrecy which surrounds the disease will begin to lift.
WHO, UNAIDS, the Global Fund, President Bush's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and their various partners are, as we say in Guyana, putting their money where their mouths are. The evidence of this is all around us. And we have seen the strengthening of local political will in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We, as individuals in this society, must also give all the support that is needed to change history.