August 17, 2006

A major world event is wrapping up in Toronto today: The 16th Annual International AIDS Conference (August 13-18). It was attended by more than 30,000 delegates from all over the world and its participants include high profile people such as Richard Gere, Bill and Melinda Gates, Bill Clinton, Alicia Keys, and the ever-present spokesman on HIV/AIDS — Stephen Lewis.

AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which attacks and ultimately kills cells of the immune system.

Did You Know?
HIV infects T-cells, which are important players in the body's immune system. HIV is classified as a retrovirus, which means that its genome is made up of ribonucleic acid or RNA (the human genome is made up of DNA). When HIV enters an immune cell, it hijacks the cell's DNA replication machinery to make many copies of itself. Ultimately, it overwhelms the immune cell, causing its host to die. This is why people with advanced stages of AIDS are prone to infection...their immune systems are so weak that something as simple as the common cold can be deadly!

Did You Know?
AIDS is a term used for an advanced stage of HIV infection; it refers to a collection of symptoms and infections due to damage of the immune system caused by the HIV virus.

HIV is can be passed on through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. In developed countries like Canada, the most common way to get HIV infection is by needle sharing among drug users and, more often, by unsafe sex practices.

Did You Know?
Using a condom during intercourse is the best way to protect you and your partner from a sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS.

However, a heavy investment in education on safe sex practices and other preventative measures, not to mention access to expensive medications have paid off; AIDS rates in Canada and other developed nations are generally less than 1%. Today, AIDS seems to fall into the category of "diseases that used to kill lots of people", like Small Pox, Polio and Tuberculosis. Yay!

So, why the big conference? Is AIDS, a disease that really warrants all this attention? The World is safe...right?

Wrong. Very Wrong...

Since February 2004, I've been living and teaching at a high school in a small community in northern Namibia. You may have heard of Namibia — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie gave it rave reviews and were delighted with the care and attention they received while Angelina was giving birth to baby Shiloh. They came to Namibia because Angelina fell in love with the country when she was here filming "Beyond Borders" and wanted to deliver her baby on African soil. It helped that she flew her doctors in from the United States and commandeered a high class resort and an entire hospital wing for the birth.

But even Brangelina cannot hide the fact that AIDS is out of control in Africa. Let me tell you about the Africa I know.

First, the numbers:

By the end of 2004 in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 25.4 million people were reported as living with HIV. This represents around 70% of the world's people infected with the virus, even though this region is home to only 11% of the world's population. In 2004, it was estimated that 3.1 million people became infected with HIV and 2.3 million died due to AIDS related diseases. It is also estimated that 12 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost parents to AIDS and are living as orphans.

Did You Know?
25.4 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were living with AIDS by 2004. That number is greater than 75% of Canada's ENTIRE population!

But what do all these numbers really mean?

I can tell you what they mean in Namibia. Children as young as 7 years of age can recite the ABC's of Safe Sex (do you know them? "Abstain, Be faithful, Condomize"). If you ask a typical teenager what they do on the weekends, they'll tell you they usually go to funerals. Every school, both primary and secondary, has an AIDS Awareness club where kids learn the dangers of unprotected sex, the truth and myths about transmission and treatment of the virus, and the best ways to prevent becoming infected. You see, not talking about sex can be potentially life threatening. Young girls are often forced to leave school because one or both of their parents have died of AIDS and there is no money to pay the school fees. They then end up being responsible for their younger siblings in what are being called "child-headed households". This is a place where the expression "living positively" means something totally different than its meaning in Canada.

But this only scratches the surface; people are dying.

You see, the particularly devastating thing about HIV/AIDS is that it doesn't directly attack the young and the old, the weak and the vulnerable like many other diseases do, but it targets the heart of the work force: people aged 18 — 49 (the age people are sexually active) are particularly vulnerable. One consequence is that fields lay barren because there is no one to cultivate the crops, and so people go hungry.

Did You Know?
It is the grandmothers or the eldest orphans who often have the burden of raising children who have lost their parents to AIDS.

In the community where I live, the infection rate has been estimated to be as high as 30%. For a young person engaging in unprotected sex, there is a 1 in 3 chance that their partner is HIV positive. These are discouraging odds. One thing I've learned over the past two years is that high school kids in Namibia are just like their counterparts in Canada - they have crushes on the opposite sex, fall in love, have relationships, get heartbroken, and go through the whole crazy process that we all love to hate. But that is where the similarity stops. When I look at my class of 40 grade 12's, I have to face the fact that more than 15 of them, might not make it to 40 without becoming infected with this deadly disease. That's the sad reality of AIDS.

Despite these dire stories and statistics, there exists a tremendous amount of hope for the future. Hundreds of community based groups and work with large Non-Governmental Organizations to break gender stereotypes about sex and promote awareness through education. More people are going to clinics for voluntary testing since newer and better Anti-Retroviral Drugs (ARVs) are becoming available, allowing people to live longer, healthier lives. They can go on to cultivate the land and raise their children. This is what Namibia considers a positive lifestyle.

Did You Know?
ARVs are drugs that suppress or stops retroviruses. Remember, HIV is classified as a retrovirus.

People are fighting this disease with everything they have. Africans are resilient; they will fight for their right to exist on this planet. But it is clear that they cannot do it alone. It is just not possible for the rest of the world to go on believing that AIDS is under control, or that countries like Canada do not have a responsibility to help out.

The 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto is an important venue for sharing new findings amongst the scientific research community. But it also sends the message that we need to be aware if what is happening on the other side of the Atlantic. People are dying. And they need our help.


UN AIDS Epidemiological Fact Sheet on HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections — Canada. 2004

2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic: Executive Summary A UNAIDS 10th anniversary special edition


16th International AIDS Conference:

UNAIDS: The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS

World Health Organization and HIV/AIDS

The Stephen Lewis Foundation

Safe Sex Practices:

For information on how to getting involved:

Maya Rao is a Physical Science and Mathematics teacher. She left Canada 5 years ago to work on cruise ships and teach in Spain. She has been volunteering with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) for the past two and a half years, teaching high school students and running Science Fairs in a rural community in northern Namibia.


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