World AIDS Day on December 1 provides a platform for global unity in the face of crisis. It is an opportunity to raise funds for the cause, strengthen awareness of the problem, demonstrate support for those living with HIV, and commemorate those who have died in the tragedy of AIDS.
Though undeniably a global crisis, the HIV/AIDS epidemic spanning the past three decades has had a uniquely devastating impact on Sub-Saharan Africa. Home to 22.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS (of the worldwide total of 34 million people), Sub-Saharan Africa represents only 10 percent of the global population, yet constitutes a disproportionate percentage (65 percent) of the global incidence of HIV/AIDS. The numbers themselves are simply staggering. Within this grossly affected region, 1.3 million AIDS related deaths and 1.8 million new HIV infections occurred in 2009 alone. The brighter side of the scenario—if it is not too paradoxical a thing to propose—is that according to UNAIDS, the epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa has stabilized.
West African has suffered a lesser impact of HIV/AIDS than many other parts of the continent, and much of this region has an HIV incidence rate of less than five percent. In Ghana, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is estimated to be 260 thousand adults and children, or about one percent of the population. However, other areas—particularly Southern Africa—have been much more greatly affected by the epidemic, and in southerly countries of Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho, the incidence rate of HIV among adults has exceeded 20 percent (24.8%, 25.9%, and 23.6% respectively). In stark contrast, approximately one tenth of one percent of Canadians is living with HIV/AIDS.
The devastation of HIV/AIDS is compounded by the socio-economic realities of Sub-Saharan Africa, and a profound human suffering has plagued much of the continent as a result of the epidemic. The obvious health implications represent only the tip of the HIV iceberg. The detrimental effects of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa also extend into social, economic, and educational spheres of life, resulting in a widespread and pervasive impact.
The limited resources of the healthcare sector exasperate and are exasperated by impact of HIV/AIDS. In some areas, access to medical attention may be severely restricted, and as more patients require treatment for AIDS related causes, the increased stress on the healthcare sector—on both the physical infrastructure and the healthcare providers—further compounds such limitations. Although those living with HIV in Europe and North America are capable of leading fairly “regular” lives through antiretroviral treatment, such treatment is accessible to less than half of the Sub-Saharan African population who require it. Furthermore, in addition to the challenges of healthcare shortages, poverty and hunger further complicate HIV treatment since antiretroviral medication is ineffective on an empty stomach.
In this way, HIV/AIDS contributes to perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Indeed, the poorest populations are generally most vulnerable to HIV, and family income inevitably plummets as the fatal consequences of AIDS take their toll. Income earners and food producers are often prevented from working due to caregiving responsibilities or their own illness. Children, particularly girls, may face no choice but to discontinue their education to care for the ill or provide for their families. In addition to the emotional, social, and psychological impacts of death, the cost of frequent funerals can also bear a huge financial burden. AIDS related deaths have left 14.8 million Sub-Saharan African children orphaned (of 16.6 million worldwide), placing additional stress on elderly caregivers, but also contributing to the rise of the phenomenon of child-headed households.
The reality of AIDS is harsh. Particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also throughout the world, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a crucial human rights concern of global precedence. In the face of such crisis, the need for ongoing response on the national and international level is paramount.
In accordance with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, has proposed the goals of “zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS related deaths.” The vision is ambitious, but nevertheless full of hope. The “Getting to Zero” mission highlights the importance expanding the accessibility of treatment, addressing the vulnerability and specific needs of women, halting vertical transmission (from mother to infant during childbirth), achieving open and equal access to treatment for marginalized groups (drug users, sex workers, and homosexuals), and eliminating the social stigma associated with HIV that so often presents a substantial barrier to treatment, social change, and progress in the face of the AIDS crisis.
The reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is alarming, and its inextricable connection to other human rights concerns elevates it to even greater importance. World AIDS Day provides an excellent opportunity for dialogue and action. However, it is also critical that global solidarity in the face of this crisis is a continual process and that HIV/AIDS occupy a prominent position within the world’s ongoing developmental discourse and social justice agenda.