AIDS isn't simple, neither are solutions
November 28, 2006
The simplest thing to understand on World AIDS Day this Dec. 1 is a single grim statistic: In the 25 years since the first reported cases of AIDS, 25 million people have died from the disease.
Unfortunately, it's getting worse.
Although rates of growth have slowed, HIV infections are still spreading. A just-released report from the United Nations and the World Health Organization shows 4.3 million people have become infected in 2006 alone.
Nearly half the world's 40 million people with HIV are women, and 2.3 million are children. Most infections today occur in Africa, but rates have skyrocketed in places like Eastern Europe, as well.
For a problem this vast and complex, there are no simple solutions. The disease is taking a terrible toll, despite what is being done right. That makes the things that are being done wrong inexcusable.
One of them is the Bush administration's broad, misguided emphasis on abstinence-till-marriage education. This approach omits and, in some cases, blocks information about other options.
Domestically, the federal government announced in October it would expand support for abstinence programs for teenagers to include 20 year olds to 29 year olds.
Abstinence can certainly work, but the problem is that people don't always abstain, despite the best of intentions. They never have. And we have to acknowledge that fact when a deadly virus is in circulation.
Unless abstinence is combined with information on other prevention options, people are left uneducated about how to protect themselves.
This is bad enough at home, but it's even worse abroad.
Billions of dollars in American spending on AIDS -- approved in 2003 -- are weighed down by a requirement that at least 33 percent be spent on programs that promote abstinence-till-marriage as the only way to stop the spread of the disease.
But a simplistic abstinence-till-marriage approach is not enough.
Women who lack educational opportunities and financial independence can find themselves unable to say no to husbands who are already infected. As a result, rates of HIV infection among married women are climbing in some countries, such as Thailand and India.
The United States also denies funding to proven programs, such as efforts to educate commercial sex workers about prevention. Similarly, our government blocks funds to family planning programs that mention abortion as an option, even if no American dollars are used. These programs could provide vital HIV education, if only we let them.
On World AIDS Day 2006, let's recognize that the AIDS pandemic is a complicated, fast-moving, worldwide problem. Imposing narrow ideological views is not a solution.
And let's hope that our new leaders in Congress stop wasting money, time and, ultimately, lives on moralistic wishful thinking.
Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis. He can be reached at email@example.com.