AIDS from A(frica) to A(sia)

October 14, 1994

The good news in AIDS research is the identification of HIV infected people who do not come down with the disease. Scientists don't know why these people stay healthy despite the presence of HIV, but the fact that they do brings a ray of hope into an otherwise cloudy picture. Their response to the virus may provide clues to help other infected people avoid the disease. The bad news is that a new strain of the virus eludes existing tests.

AIDS was first identified, transmitted heterosexually, in Africa. Now it is moving, heterosexually, to the most populous continent, Asia. In the United States it has been transmitted mostly through male homosexual contact and shared drug needles. It would be foolish to believe that the U.S. pattern cannot change, or that African and Asian experience has no relevance.

More likely, however, scare talk and education will work. If American society believes that heterosexual activity of young people is an AIDS menace, and convinces young people to abstain or adopt safer sexual practices, the dire predictions will not come true. Otherwise, they will.

The World Health Organization believes that 17 million people are infected with HIV, of whom 3 million got it in the past year, and that by the year 2000 this number will be 40 million, of whom 10 million will be in Asia. The growth areas are Burma, Thailand and India. Thailand may be the worst but India has the most awesome potential.

The spread is largely through heterosexual intercourse, abetted by burgeoning prostitution and sale of young girls. The low status of women deters prevention. A young Asian prostitute cannot make a dominant male customer use a condom or go away. Of Asian governments, only Thailand's so far has effective programs.

The drugs being tested and used in the United States to slow the progress of the disease in infected people are expensive. Poverty spreads the disease, most vividly in Africa and former communist countries of Eastern Europe where contaminated blood supplies and hospital equipment may still be infecting people.

The most pessimistic message from this year's 10th conference of AIDS is that the annual affairs will become biennial, because not enough new information is coming in. That's not for lack of trying. AIDS remains a hot grant subject, but not all investigations produce knowledge. This pandemic is going to be around a long time. And it is going to have to be managed before it is, if ever, conquered.

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