AIDS and Aid

August 4, 2008

The man’s shirt was torn, allowing it to hang loosely from his protruding collar bone. The remaining bit of shirt did little to disguise a body that was plainly wasting away. His glassy eyes stared somewhere above my head; clearly he could no longer see. From one ear poured a small stream of blood that the woman hurried to dab with a washcloth.

The woman then gestured to me, urging me to move closer to the man. I inched forward, gripping my camera tightly so my shaking hands wouldn’t betray my overwhelming sense of nervousness.

“Here. Now take it. Take the picture of him and show it to everyone in America. Tell them that this man doesn’t talk, doesn’t see, he just sits. Like you see him here, that’s how he is,” she told me, speaking in surprisingly good English.

She shouted to someone in the back of the house. Two young boys came running, looking surprised to see a white person in their home. After I took a picture of the man, the woman told me to take a picture of the two boys.

“These two are orphans. See that picture, that’s their Mom. Dead. This one will die soon.” She gestured to a faded picture tacked to the wall and then waved her hand back towards the man.

I had no idea what to say to her. So I just said, “Pole. Pole sana.” (“Sorry, I’m really sorry).

That man was the first person I have seen that has been visibly infected by AIDs. But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t meant anyone affected by the disease, I’m sure I have met a lot of people, the problem is just that AIDs still carries such a social stigma that it is rarely discussed openly.

Instead of AIDs, people are said to be suffering from “long illnesses.” Even at funerals the cause of death is simply said to be a “long illness.”

But calling AIDs by another name isn’t helping any, last week as we watched our 9:00 news, the newscaster grimly announced that the rate of HIV/AIDs in Kenya had increased from 6.1% to 7%. Everyone was pretty upset by this statistic and throughout the week I heard varied explanations.

One explanation that was especially difficult for me to agree with was the argument that the rate of infection has increased because ARV treatment has made it difficult to tell who is infected and has decreased the fear associated with HIV/AIDs. The treatment, while it does not cure AIDS, can vastly improve the lives of those who are infected.

Wide-spread ARV treatment for AIDs is still relatively new. I just finished a book called Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor by Paul Farmer. At one point, he quoted McNeil 2000b as saying:

“There are at least 34 million HIV-infected people in the world, at least 30 million of them poor. Poor not just by American standards but by world standards: living on less than $2 a day. AIDS specialists rarely say this bluntly, but the majority of those 30 million people have simply been written off, because the first priority for the first few billion dollars is prevention, not treatment.”

I think a few things have changed since them. Bush just recently signed a The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, (PEPFAR) that gives a “$48 billion increase to the program which will make it possible to prevent 12 million new HIV infections globally, provide treatment for at least 3 million individuals with HIV/AIDS, treat 450,000 children and ensure care for 12 million individuals, including 5 million orphans and vulnerable children in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.” The bill was co-authored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, an amazing woman who I was lucky enough to intern for in high school.

However, despite his support in the international fight against AIDs, Bush is still getting some complaints that he hasn’t done enough to fight the disease at home. According to a recent New York Times article, the US annual infection rate is 40 percent higher than previously estimated. The infection rate also differs severely in terms of race, there are 7 times as many black Americans infected and almost 3 times as many Hispanics. But under Bush, the Center for Disease Control’s budget has shrunk by 19 percent.

Also in the article was a quote from a doctor saying that the increase in the number of those infected in the U.S. meant that “prevention campaigns make even less difference than anyone thought.”

In my personal opinion, prevention is a nice idea but when you are speaking of a disease that affects not just those infected but their children, spouses and entire villages you need to speak about treatment.

When Auntie and I left that woman’s house I asked her why the man was so sick, wanting confirmation of something I was really hoping wasn’t true. She waited for a while and then said in mixed Swahili and English, “Sijui, I don’t know what to tell you.”

It’s easy to read statistics, have a moment of pity and then forget about it. But AIDs is a disease that is very real in this world and unfortunately it is even more real in many countries in Africa.