Last week, while reading for “Media and Medicine in Modern America” (which I highly recommend), I came across something shocking. I read that Arthur Ashe, a tennis star and AIDS activist, died on Feb. 7, 1993. Why did this shock me, you may ask? Because I was born four days later, on Feb. 11, 1993.
I know this is not a remarkable coincidence — someone dying nearly on my birthday. What struck me more though, was the picture above this fact: It showed Ashe speaking in December 1992, wearing the largest, ugliest, most quintessentially ’90s glasses frames and an equally anachronistic thin necktie. Wow, I thought, what a long time ago that was.
Times truly have changed in the short time that I have been alive. But have they changed enough?
In the span of my lifetime, the fight against HIV/AIDS — the disease that led to Ashe’s death — has lost much of its stigma and found considerable success. There are now several medicines that can treat HIV. Rates of new HIV infections declined about 25 percent in the last 10 years, thanks to awareness efforts in Africa. We have made progress.
Though the number of new infections diminished in the last 10 years, the overall number of people with HIV increased by the millions in the same period. It has quadrupled since Ashe died in 1993. The U.N. recently announced that its funding to fight HIV/AIDS in developing countries fell by 10 percent in 2010. Even though there are now effective treatments for HIV, about two-thirds of all people with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa — one of the poorest regions on earth — with the least access to medication.
The drugs that can effectively treat full-blown AIDS can cost more than $10,000 per year, but the average sub-Saharan African makes about $500 annually. And according to the U.N., we are tens of billions of dollars short of what is needed to treat just those with full-blown AIDS.
I guess the bottom line is, in spite of all the progress we have made over my 18 years, we could have done more. And we can do more. Starting today.
Our government should give more money to fight HIV/AIDS. Beginning in 2003 with the creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the United States has given billions — more than any other country — to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS. But we’re not going to meet President Obama’s campaign promise of $50 billion in five years. Even if we were, many prominent AIDS activists doubt that $50 billion is nearly enough; Dr. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, said in 2010 that PEPFAR features “strong policies with inadequate funding.”
The obvious question we then face is: Should we be spending more to combat HIV/AIDS in other countries when our own economy is in such trouble? Simply put, yes, we should. Beyond fulfilling our moral duty, helping to combat HIV improves our image abroad, protects our economic interests in resources-rich third-world countries and will allow us to spend less on foreign aid in the future. AIDS funding also has been consistently supported by fiscal conservatives in the past: President Bush created PEPFAR and then reauthorized it in 2008, at the height of the recession, with the support of many Republicans.
But back to the moral duty. The spread of HIV/AIDS is the single largest medical problem the world has faced in the last 500 years. As the world’s richest and purportedly greatest country, can we really afford not to give more? In some African countries, 1 in 3 adults is infected. A 2007 U.N. report said that half of all 15-year-olds in Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe would die from AIDS by 2012 without enough intervention. It remains unclear whether we intervened enough. We’ll see next year.
We have done much to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in the last 18 years — since I was born and Arthur Ashe died. Yet doing much should not be acceptable when we know we could have and still can do so much more. Just as large glasses frames, like Ashe’s, are making a comeback (here’s looking at you, hipsters), perhaps Ashe’s ideas can too. Ashe once said that true heroism is “the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” At whatever cost, the United States should fight to eradicate AIDS.
Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .