This Friday, World AIDS Day demands your attention. Twenty-five years after AIDS was first identified, we are called to reflect on the over 25 million people who have died of one of the most devastating diseases of our time. 39.5 million people are currently living with HIV, according to a recent U.N. report, and the pandemic is still growing in all parts of the world.
Despite such shocking statistics, AIDS can too often feel like it is a world away from Yale. As we busily prepare ourselves for the holidays and the end of the semester, stories of suffering around the world seem to fade into the background, like the latest violence in Iraq or in New Haven. This week offers plenty of great opportunities to raise awareness, such as a video conference on Friday that will allow students to talk face-to-face with people with AIDS from around the world, but I fear that all too many Yalies will find the threat of looming finals somehow more important than the threat of millions of lives lost to AIDS.
We cannot be mere spectators, however, because the fact is that what we do here matters. The theme of this year’s World AIDS Day is accountability, and it’s about time the Yale community fully recognizes the role it has to play in the AIDS epidemic in New Haven and beyond.
One of the first steps to becoming more responsible is simply to be informed. As future world leaders, we need to know that public health threats like AIDS are not only taking lives, but also disrupting economies, institutions and our own security. As Americans, we need to know that our nation’s distorted abstinence-only policies and limits on needle exchange programs are failing. As global citizens, we need to know that we can reverse the AIDS pandemic but that our society must make a true commitment.
This knowledge only works, however, if we can take it out of the ivory tower and turn it into action. Take a moment on Friday to call your newly elected representatives and tell them what you think. Take a bit of the money you saved from Black Friday door-busters to donate to AIDS-prevention programs. Accept responsibility and use what you know and what you have to make some real change.
Perhaps the best place to start is right here at Yale, by making sure the University is accountable for its research. Yale scientists have done amazing work in developing drugs that are licensed to pharmaceutical companies to be part of the cocktail of drugs used to treat AIDS. While treatment alone won’t ultimately stop the spread of HIV and AIDS, it’s an important component to improving the quality of life for the millions who are living with AIDS. Unfortunately, the prices that pharmaceutical companies charge are often too expensive for those most in need. One way to reduce costs is for Yale not fully to enforce its patent for these drugs, which would allow the drug to be distributed more cheaply in developing countries.
Five years ago, Yale made history when, faced with student pressure and international activism, the administration released part of its $40 million patent rights on stavudine, which is a key drug in the AIDS cocktail. Yale students who helped lead this initiative then formed Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a group of students at top research universities across the country to encourage these institutions to ensure access to drugs for AIDS and other diseases. Recently Yale licensed a new AIDS drug, ed4t, and the pressure is on for Yale to maintain its ethical leadership.
Today, on the eve of World AIDS Day, students from UAEM will be meeting with the administration to insist that Yale take a lead in ensuring access to essential medicines. In last week’s Nature, the administration suggested that Yale would not enforce its rights for ed4t in India, and it is important that this policy be expanded to other developing countries.
Perhaps more importantly, Yale can be the first university to sign on to UAEM’s Philadelphia consensus statement, a declaration asserting the importance of ensuring access to essential medicines around the world. Leading public health experts, such as Paul Farmer and Jeffery Sachs, have already signed. Students and community members can also sign this statement online.
This Friday, let’s all do our part in the fight against AIDS.
Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.