Season for Compassion

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(HOST) Commentator Nils Daulaire says that in our race to contain AIDS, the disease got a historic head start, and our compassion is still running a distant second.

(DAULAIRE) As we enter the holiday season, we are daily reminded of the power of love and compassion. Yet more than two decades into the global AIDS pandemic, we’re still not practicing what we preach.

Sure, medical science is moving forward. But a disease is more than a virus and its symptoms. Epidemics are driven by interactions of climate and sanitation, travel and pollution, war and poverty, ignorance and prejudice. The persistence of preventable disease is a manifestation of our societal, political and even spiritual health.

Looked at from this perspective, AIDS is not so much an assault on our immune systems as a global atrophy of compassion. We just don’t care enough.

At the beginning, AIDS thrived by attacking some of the most marginalized groups in human society, taking full advantage of our compromised empathy. To most people, gays weren’t enough “like us” to arouse our best defenses against threats to humankind: courage and generosity.

The 17th annual World AIDS Day has come and gone, and – despite rapidly growing rates of death and infection, and statistics showing that nearly half the world’s 41 million HIV-positive adults are women – this real, present danger to humankind received far less attention than cabinet nominations, a celebrity murder and even the end of a game show contestant’s long winning streak.

This World AIDS Day focused on the plight of women and girls. In most of the world, women have no control over their sexual and reproductive safety. Poor health makes them three times more vulnerable to infection than men. Millions of faithful wives are infected by their husbands. Many are forced by their utter poverty into prostitution. Young girls are victimized. AIDS orphans swell city streets, where many sell sex, continuing the cycle of infection.

Yet there is every reason for hope. Antiretroviral drugs hold the virus in check and could be made accessible to nearly everyone. A vaccine will surely be found, given time. Condoms work – if people are allowed to learn about and use them. New microbicides may give women a way to protect themselves against infection, even if their partners won’t cooperate.

There’s reason to hope – but only if our compassion kicks in. Compared to the magnitude of the threat, present allocations of attention, money and resources are the equivalent of a stocking stuffer. The complex global phenomenon we call AIDS thrives because we’re still not really paying attention. Brutally opportunistic, AIDS knows we’re still seeing all those women and girls, all those men and boys, the 20 million dead and the yet-unborn victims, as somebody other than “us.”

As “them.”

What will it take to make us see their peril and suffering as our own? To make their rescue – and humankind’s protection – our urgent priority? Maybe a bit more of that “holiday spirit” of caring and giving, not just on World AIDS Day, but every day of the year.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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