ColumnsHealth & Wellness

AIDS Watch:This One’s for Jerry

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On World AIDS Day, show your colors.

By Kelly McCann

KellyMcCann_WPTN
Kelly McCann

For the past 21 years, World AIDS Day has been observed every December 1 in order to raise awareness of the AIDS pandemic. 

Allow me to digress for just a moment: “epidemic” refers to the spread of an infectious disease to large numbers of people in a certain area; a “pandemic” refers to the same spread of infectious disease, but it impacts higher numbers of people over a much larger geographic area, like across continents. In short, a pandemic is an epidemic of worldwide proportions.

Now, back to the topic at hand.

The inaugural World AIDS Day observance in 1988 was conceived and implemented by two men who worked for the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland—James Bunn and Thomas Netter. Thanks to their vision and the leadership offered by Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (now known as UNAIDS), World AIDS Day has become the longest-running disease-awareness-and-prevention campaign of its kind.

On this day, all around the globe, people remember those who have died from HIV/AIDS and commemorate those who are living with the disease. We at AIDS Foundation Houston host a luncheon to honor corporations and individuals who have made significant contributions to the field of HIV/AIDS. Other community-based organizations and public health agencies conduct HIV-testing events, convene education seminars, and hold candlelight vigils to bring attention to the important missions of preventing new HIV infections, eliminating stigma, and improving access to life-saving medications for all people living with HIV/AIDS.

Statistics clearly illustrate that we have far to go before we achieve those ideals. Since 1981, more than 25 million people around the world have died from AIDS-related causes. Currently, UNAIDS estimates there are 33.2 million people living with the disease, and only one-third of those who need it have access to care and treatment. 

In 2007 alone, 2.1 million people with AIDS died, including 330,000 children. And in that same year, there were 2.5 million new HIV infections. That means almost 7,000 people were infected each and every day of the year, and that trend continues in 2009!

Of course, sub-Saharan Africa is the worst affected region of the world with over 22 million people with AIDS living there. That’s 68 percent of the global total. In particular, three African countries where AFH supports camps for HIV-infected children have incredibly high rates of infection. In the countries of Botswana and Lesotho, more than 23 percent of the adult population (ages 15 through 49) are infected with HIV, and in Swaziland, it’s 26 percent. Think about it.  Approximately one in four adults living in those countries has been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS! One in four!

Adults are not the only ones suffering in sub-Saharan Africa. Children are also paying the price. More than 1.8 million African children are infected with HIV, and AIDS kills one child every minute. In addition, more than 11 million sub-Saharan children are “AIDS orphans,” having lost at least one parent to AIDS-related causes.

The picture is not nearly so bleak in the United States, but that doesn’t mean the news is good. The CDC estimates 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV, and there are approximately 55,000 new HIV infections in our country each year. Locally, one Houstonian contracts HIV every eight hours.

Luckily, most of our citizens have access to antiretroviral medications and other treatments needed to achieve positive health outcomes. As a result, AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. have decreased to about 15,000 per year, down significantly from the mid-1990s peak of over 50,000 deaths per year.

However, AIDS still kills Americans. We at AFH were recently reminded of that fact in a very real, very personal way. Our former colleague, fellow activist, and comrade-in-arms, Jerry Morales, passed away in mid-September. Jerry was a thoughtful and intelligent man with a wicked sense of humor and a tireless spirit. He was a kind and caring service provider, a passionate crusader in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and, most of all, a loyal friend. We miss him terribly.

Prior to Jerry’s death, we at AFH had not lost a co-worker to AIDS in several years. It is our hope that Jerry will be the last. 

On this World AIDS Day, please pause to reflect upon the impact this disease has on our world and on our lives. Think about Jerry, or someone you know, and say a prayer. Talk about HIV with your associates and make sure they understand the importance of knowing their status. Make a commitment to practice safer sex. Show your true colors (and your concern about this vital health issue) by wearing a red ribbon. And take to heart the theme of this year’s World AIDS Day: Stop AIDS. Keep the promise.

Kelly McCann is chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. For information on AFH’s World AIDS Day luncheon, call 713/623-6796 or visit the website at AIDSHelp.org.

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