World AIDS Day marks progress, distinct challenges in Africa

Tuesday marks World AIDS Day when a fresh look at worldwide statistics and what is being done to stem the spread of the disease are warranted. Statistically it is decidedly a mixed bag. United Nations figures released last week show that over the past seven years the total number of people infected with HIV/AIDS has remained relatively flat at around 33 million worldwide. The total number of infections and deaths has steadily declined, but that is offset by 2.7 million new cases in 2008. Seventy percent of those new deaths come from sub-Saharan Africa. The U.N. report suggest that targeted local strategies need to become focused on specific problems in order to drove down the rate of new infections. It says that the largest group of Africans contracting AIDS is older heterosexual couples, illustrating a need to adjust approaches based on the demographics. Many Christian organizations are actively involved in AIDS prevention and treatment efforts domestically and internationally. The Episcopal Church, for example, references the U.N. Millennium Development Goals as benchmarks for addressing poverty and social justice issues. In a letter penned to mark World AIDS Day, Episcopal Church presiding bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori cautions against Americans becoming complacent about AIDS simply because it has been a public health issue for decades. “In the United States, HIV/AIDS has lost much of its visibility in the past decade with many Americans growing complacent about the threat of the disease,” Schori wrote. “It is not always immediately obvious who in our communities is suffering from HIV/AIDS, and the stigma of diagnosis further isolates and alienates those who need our love and support. As Christians, our ministry to those living with HIV/AIDS in our communities is more essential than ever.” As an example of such ministries, Catholic Relief Services quotes figures it supported more than 280 HIV/AIDS projects in 62 countries worth $170 million in recently completed fiscal year 2009. Similarly, hundreds of Christian organizations are working in the hardest hit areas of the globe. One key focus is for progress in programs for expectant mothers to help them combat the effects of passing the disease to their babies. “We’ve seen in the United States that by testing women and providing ARV treatment during pregnancy and labor for HIV-positive mothers, it’s possible to prevent babies from being born with the virus,” said Robert Zachritz, World Vision’s director for advocacy and government relations. “Yet globally, two out of every three HIV-positive pregnant women still cannot access treatment to protect her unborn child from a life with HIV.” HIV infections among children have fallen significantly due in part to greater investment in strategies to prevent mother-to-child transmission. However, with 2 million children under 15 currently infected with HIV, protecting children in the womb is a critical step. Education is also a vital weapon. World Relief is using its church partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa to educate teens about the importance of abstinence as a way to present the spread of the disease. In countries such as Rwanda, Mozambique, Kenya and the Caribbean nation of Haiti, the organization is also working to encourage adults to stay in monogamous relationships. It has a goal of educating 1.8 million children in these countries to the danger of AIDS this year. Nonetheless, worldwide the challenge for young women the challenge is great. According to UNICEF figures released earlier this year AIDS remains the largest killer of women of childbearing age. “Although there is increasing emphasis on women and children in the global HIV/AIDS response, the disease continues to have a devastating impact on their health, livelihood and survival,” said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director. Links: Wall Street Journal — The Global AIDS Epidemic: Six Key Data Points: World Health Organization — Towards Universal Access: Scaling up priority HIV/AIDS interventions in the health sector (September 2009):

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