- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

She has an awesome presence, that Dorothy Irene Height. Surely you have heard of her, the chairman and president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and, I must add, the grande dame of civil rights.

Let me simply state that the NCNW and Ms. Height were pushing for equal rights for women long before Gloria Steinem and the libbers even had bras to burn. NCNW and Ms. Height were preaching self-help and encouraging women to take care of their minds, bodies and souls long before it became fashionable.

These days, messages such as theirs are even more relevant, and in our own way, each of us can help get the word out especially when our families are endangered. Besides, I don't mind admitting that women love to gab, and if our gabbing can help make this world just a little safer, then, hey, go for it.

Today's gabfest is about HIV and AIDS, and the picture I'm about to paint is particularly devastating.

Consider this one simple statistic that Ms. Height, ever the educator, pointed out to me in a recent telephone discussion: "We need to understand that the major cause of death in the U.S. of women between 25 and 44 is AIDS."

I was dumbfounded and, frankly, embarrassed by my ignorance. I mean, what do you say? How do you follow up when you are given such shocking news?

Ms. Height suggested I educate myself before approaching you. That led me on a fact-finding mission, in which I learned more staggering news, courtesy of Ms. Height, a white paper she wrote and the Internet.

• Of the 11,582 youths age 20 and younger in the United States with full-blown AIDS this year, more than half were diagnosed before age 5.

• Of the more than 11,000 youths with AIDS, 3,302 are teen-agers.

• Two-thirds of the world's 34 million AIDS-infected people live in sub-Saharan African.

• Thirty percent of all pregnant women in South Africa are HIV-infected.

• Fifty-two percent of 13- to 19-year-olds with HIV in the United States are female.

• Sixty-five percent of the U.S. female teens infected are black, and 29 percent are white.

• In Zimbabwe, more than 1.5 million people are living with HIV or AIDS, and 80,000 of them are expected to die of the disease by the end of the year. By the end of 2001, their deaths will have left more than 1 million orphans.

My little slide show was hardly pretty, was it?

Mothers and fathers dying of AIDS. American children living with AIDS. Pregnant women passing HIV on to their babies.

It is unfathomable.

Now imagine living in a world in which you can type a few words on a computer screen in the U.S. Capitol, and within seconds, someone using a laptop in the Embassy in South Africa can view them. That is simply amazing.

What does not compute, however, is how we have yet to comprehend this AIDS thing.

We understand the consequences of teen-age pregnancy and make a collective effort to get the word out. We understand the consequences of illiteracy and make concerted efforts to erase it. We rail against smoking, violent movies, misogynistic rap music and negative campaign ads. We lobby to save bald eagles, prohibit flag burning and legalize marijuana. We campaign against the death penalty, push for free enterprise and use any means necessary to combat terrorism.

We tore down the Berlin Wall, and we race for cures for breast cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer. We understand how sneaky and devastating high blood pressure, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease are. We found inoculations against polio and such life-threatening illnesses as measles and smallpox. We say school prayer is bad and in-vitro fertilization is good. We even, for better and for worse, discuss the merits of same-sex marriage.

That is the American way.

Should it not be the American way to overcome AIDS?

"Nongovernmental organizations have to be much more aware of how we deal with health, poverty and hunger," Ms. Height says. "We have a problem that has significance not just for Africa, but the whole world."

Where do we start? At home, of course.

Parents must educate themselves about this issue, this health issue, because the statistics prove what happens when we rely on others to do our job. After we get the information, we are morally obligated to pass it on to others our spouses, our parents and our children.

Come on, you know how that works. You tell two people, they tell two people, and so on, and so on, and so on.

"We have to help our girls understand they have to learn how to protect themselves," Ms. Height says. "There's been some reluctance to do that."

Ms. Height knows what she's talking about. Since 1975, the National Council of Negro Women has been working in several African nations, setting up workshops and self-help and educational programs. The council specifically targets women and children in Africa and in the United States.

Of course, each African nation has its own cultural borders. Americans sometimes do not understand that because, out of ignorance, we tend to think all Africans are alike. In fact, they are as different as Col. Moammar Gadhafi and Nelson Mandela.

I hope after you finish reading my column you don't just toss it aside and move on to the sports section or, if you are reading it on the Internet, click the mouse and move on to the daily horoscopes.

Information is power, and Lord knows we need all the power we can muster to combat this AIDS problem. God help us.

Deborah Simmons is an editorial writer for The Washington Times. She can be reached by e-mail (simmon@twtmail.com).

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