Overcoming The Aids Crisis
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For a long time, AIDS seemed like a distant nightmare — a Western disease of little consequence to most Pakistanis. But now, as the AIDS epidemic continues to spread, it's knocking on the doors of Asia, the world's most populous continent ... and Pakistan must be prepared.
AIDS awareness has taken hold in the West, but Asians, with low levels of literacy, know little about this terrible disease.
Given the inhibited nature of Asian societies and embarrassment at discussing intimate matters, the task of raising awareness about this disease is all the more difficult.
And we are facing some staggering statistics: According to reports, Asians account for almost 5 million HIV-infected victims, with almost 90 percent of these people living in India, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.
And AIDS is affecting everyone. In the West, AIDS was seen as a predominantly homosexual disease for a long time. But in Asia, it is claiming women and children as its targets, as well. Heterosexual contact and intravenous drug use are identified as the two main methods of AIDS transmission.
The incidence of infection in metropolitan centers like Bombay, India, is frightening. Smaller Asian countries like Burma and Thailand have well over half a million infected cases each.
But Thailand, the first Asian country to confront the AIDS challenge, has been winning its battle against the disease with a comprehensive safe-sex education program. It is this Thai model that we must look to if we want to figure out what works and what does not in controlling the AIDS epidemic.
We don't want to be taken by surprise in Pakistan, although to date we have emerged relatively unscathed. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, HIV prevalence rates in Pakistan are relatively small compared to India and Thailand. In my country, we have some 40,000 cases of AIDS.
Research indicates that the bulk of AIDS victims in our country contracted the disease through the use of intravenous drugs. We have almost a million and a half drug addicts in Pakistan, so getting our youth to beat their addiction is a top priority.
And although Pakistanis share deep religious values discouraging sexual promiscuity, in our urban centers, heterosexual transmission is growing.
The bottom line is that the world of today is a global village — no country is an island unto itself.
As prime minister, I have directed the government to lift the shroud of secrecy from this dreaded epidemic. Our government has allocated $2 million this year alone in our battle for AIDS prevention. We have targeted high-risk citizens and taught them how AIDS is spread and what they can do to prevent the transmission of the virus.
Although religious and cultural sensitivity makes it difficult to widely advertise the use of condoms to prevent infection, we are targeting our education programs on those most at risk, following the successful Thai pattern.
We have established 30 HIV/AIDS screening centers around the country in only three years. We are making extraordinary efforts to require all blood banks in Pakistan to provide only tested, safe blood for transfusions.
These efforts save us money in the long run, as I am told that the cost per patient comes to about $15,000.
But beyond prevention, we must also do whatever we can to support those who have contracted the disease. We, as a world community, need to work together to bring down the cost of the drug treatments. We need to discuss whether, in a world of deregulation, pharmaceutical companies can be convinced to bring down the costs. And we need to strengthen international outfits, such as the World Health Organization, in combating this modern-day plague.
Over centuries, man and nature have been caught in a battle for control. As soon as we discover a cure for leprosy, we are confronted by the plague. As soon as the plague is cured, we are face with tuberculosis. As soon as we discover antibiotics, we have to cope with the emergence of superbugs.
But perhaps that is what life is all about — a continuous challenge to overcome new difficulties that arise with every decade and every century. Perhaps nature wants to test us ... to test our will and our ability to forever conquer new heights.
And most importantly, perhaps it is a test of our moral fiber, a challenge that will compel us to cast aside our selfish reasoning for a humane approach that is all-encompassing. Could it be that in the face of adversity, we can find true unity?
It is the international community's global responsibility — both moral and political — to ensure that the decisions concerning treatment are universal, irrespective of where we live, what we look like and how much money we have.
Any other criteria would not only be immoral but would also give a new and devastating definition of "have" and "have-nots." There are too many innocent lives at stake for us to simply look the other way.
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