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Shoulds AIDS be classified as a disaster?

Shoulds AIDS be classified as a disaster?
JOSE CENDON/AFP/Getty Images

With Zimbabwe’s political turmoil and Burma’s humanitarian woes grabbing most of the headlines on Africa and Asia lately, it might be easy to forget about another crisis that threatens millions of people on both continents: HIV/AIDS. In its recently released annual report, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Foundation (IRFC) recommended that the epidemic be classified a “disaster” in certain Asian and African countries, breaking with its usual focus on natural catastrophes like cyclones. The IRFC backed up its argument on HIV/AIDS with some scary statistics (PDF of the report):

  • Some 2.1 million people died of AIDS in 2007
  • At least one adult in ten is living with HIV in nations that include Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe
  • Around 15 million children are currently orphaned as the result of AIDS

Perhaps the most chilling figure is this one: 25 million. That’s how many people are estimated to have died of AIDS worldwide since 1981. In comparison, the tsunami that ravaged Indonesia in 2004 killed around 232,000 people.

Like natural disasters, AIDS can be a comprehensive threat, stressing healthcare systems and fueling poverty. AIDS can also worsen the impact of environmental catastrophes. Nine major natural disasters of 2007 occured in countries with generalized AIDS epidemics, according to the IRFC, meaning that people with HIV/AIDS had to contend with interrupted care. With AIDS treatment often requiring daily drug cocktails, even a minor interruption in drug availability poses major health risks.

So what can the world do to confront the epidemic? Throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away. Billions have already been spent on general AIDS education and awareness programs worldwide, but the number of people living with AIDS keeps increasing in several areas, including Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and even parts of Western Europe. The IRFC says that the world won’t make major strides against the disease until governments begin targeting their at-risk populations — including sex-workers and intravenous drug users — for prevention and treatment. Until this is done, AIDS will continue to wreak havoc, far worse than any single tsunami or earthquake could.