AIDS: An unchecked threat

If a terrorist attack wiped out an American city the size of Boston, Denver or Seattle, there would be an immediate and overwhelming response.

Federal, state and local officials would spend billions in relief without the usual bureaucratic red tape and politics that typically encumber government. Immediate steps would be taken to prevent future attacks, like the government’s response to 9/11. Those of us in other cities would offer our support, sympathy and savings, much like we did after Hurricane Katrina.

Surely, we’d respond with more vigor, resources and compassion than we have to the attack being leveled by AIDS. By the end of 2006, AIDS had killed more than 565,000 people, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It took just 3,000 deaths in the 9/11 attacks for the United States to declare war on terror and launch not one, but two military operations–” in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the government has never created a single national plan or comprehensive strategy to combat the war on AIDS.

In fiscal year 2008, the federal government spent $188 billion fighting terror and $23 billion warring against HIV and AIDS, with care, treatment, research, prevention and other activities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

There’s a litany of reports about the lives lost in Iraq and outrage among Americans who want the war to end. Politicians have built campaigns on promises to end the fighting. But outside of the HIV and AIDS community, rarely do we see mass demonstrations calling for an end to the epidemic or hear political promises. It seems to capture our attention only on World AIDS Day or when a celebrity dies from the disease.

Other than the Ryan Whites of the world who got the disease through blood transfusions, I’m not sure if there’s a lot of sympathy for those who die from AIDS. Perhaps some of us don’t care because we don’t agree with the lifestyles of those who died, or we don’t believe AIDS affects us or our community. The latter is quickly becoming untrue.

In 1984, nearly half of the nation’s 7,700 AIDS cases were in metropolitan New York and San Francisco. At the time, gay or bisexual men represented 73 percent of those cases. The number of white people who were infected was more than double the number of infected African Americans. Less than 1 percent of the infections were among heterosexuals.

Times have changed. In 2006, the HIV epidemic touched every corner of the nation. About half of the diagnosed infections that year were people who were not gay men. The number of African Americans infected had become the majority, nearly double the number of white people infected. And nearly 30 percent of infections resulted from heterosexual contact, compared with 1 percent in 1984.

Maybe you think HIV and AIDS isn’t your problem. And you could be right. But maybe it’s not your problem, yet.

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