To the Editor:

Ben Trachtenberg’s column (“African AIDS presents a human rights crisis,” 3/20) highlighted many of the moral and ethical reasons for greater efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, as well as the economic interests pharmaceutical companies could find in humanitarian aid. But in terms of self-interest, there is a far more compelling reason to address the crisis — prevention of new diseases.

A significant source of new diseases has been animal viruses and infections that cross over to human beings. These run the gamut from mad cow disease to AIDS itself and may be the most significant source of new infections in the 21st century.

The normal human immune system provides an effective barrier to mutated animal diseases, so that crossing over occurs very rarely, and the resulting new viruses have little chance of fully penetrating the human species and becoming a full-blown epidemic. In Africa, millions of individuals whose immune systems are crippled or almost nonexistent, create a breeding ground for new diseases which now plague the AIDS-infected communities. In the years to come, we may be wondering at the strange appearance of novel pathogens from these communities.

There are tremendous moral reasons for serious commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa, since the suffering of AIDS patients goes far beyond what words can illustrate. But failure to involve ourselves can no longer be construed as selfish or even fiscally prudent; it is merely deeply short-sighted.

Andrew Kitcher ’01

March 20, 2001