HIV and AIDS
HIV/AIDS is undeniably one of the greatest health problems of our time; since 1981, there have been over 25 million HIV/AIDS related deaths and more than 35 million cases. In 2010 alone, 2.7 million people were newly infected and 1.8 million died of AIDS.
HIV (the Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a retrovirus that drastically weakens the immune system by infecting cells, making the body vulnerable to opportunistic infections. It can take HIV 10-15 years to evolve into AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), and a steady drug treatment can slow the process. The virus is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, the transfusion of infected blood, and the sharing of contaminated needles. Infected women can spread the virus to their children through the birthing process or breastfeeding. Without drugs, 1/3 of children born with HIV die before the age of one, and 60% die before their fifth birthday.
The virus is more common in developing countries than in the developed world. It is especially prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa, home to 68% of all infected people, yet accounting for only 12% of the world’s population (2009). Over the past 20 years, the life expectancy in southern Africa has dropped from 61 to 43 years, mostly as a result of AIDS-related deaths. The disease has grave social and economic effects. Socially, when one or both parents get AIDS, the family structure is disrupted, as they can no longer work to support the family. If the parents die, the children are taken in by grandparents who often struggle to support them financially. If there is no family left, the children are on their own. Currently, AIDS has orphaned 14.8 million children in Africa (2009). With no other choice, these children often turn to the streets where they are forced into drugs, slave labor and commercial sex to survive. Their new lifestyles often put them at high risk for HIV infection themselves, which only further perpetuates the cycle
AIDS is killing the most economically productive age groups; driving families and communities further into poverty and, therefore, increasing rates of malnutrition, disease, and death. Over the last decade, as developed countries continued to see an increase in life expectancy, many developing countries have experienced huge drops in their life expectancies resulting from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The death of working age people creates exceedingly high levels of childhood dependency, or the ratio of dependent children to working-age adults. This creates huge strains on household finances and school systems, and depresses growth in per capita income throughout entire regions.
Educating populations about the transmission of HIV between sexual partners, as well as from mothers to their children, and demonstrating behaviors that can prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is a vital part of stemming the spread of these diseases. HIV/AIDS and STIs are entirely preventable. By creating strong, positive role models and demonstrating the consequences of “risky” sexual behaviors, PMC’s programs help to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STIs. Read more on the effects of PMC’s program in Ethiopia.
One area in need of improvement is reducing the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. Stigma creates undue fear and rejection of HIV positive people and reduces the likelihood that people will be tested to learn their status, for fear of discrimination. The largest threat to preventing further infection is having an HIV positive population who do not know they are HIV positive. Since fear of stigma often prevents people from getting tested, stigma constitutes a major barrier to effectively preventing new infections, as those who are infected likely will not come seek to determine their status, and may not even know they are infected – and thus cannot prevent infecting others if they are HIV positive.
To prevent HIV from becoming an unforeseen killer that will drastically escalate despite (or because of) the stigma associated with high-risk behavior, continuing and strengthening prevention efforts is crucial. Rather than telling people what to do, issues such as HIV/AIDS can effectively be addressed in a sensitive and culturally appropriate manner through inclusion in a serial drama, in which characters discuss these issues among themselves, and model appropriate behavior. Read more on the effects of PMC’s program in Ethiopia.