Dr. Susan J. Blumenthal and Melissa Shive make a good case for renewed focus on the global HIV/AIDS pandemic here at home (AIDS amnesia in America, Commentary, Tuesday). It was shocking to read that Washington’s infection rates are greater than those of many impoverished Third World countries.
Their plea for more funding, however, would be more persuasive if they included a few other vital bits of information.
First, they failed to make clear that the AIDS RNA (ribonucleic acid)-based virus has an extraordinarily high mutation rate of about 1 percent. This means that in every person infected with HIV, there is a potential for about 2 million variations of this lethal virus to be produced each day.
Most variations are insignificant, but some lead to new strains of the virus that are resistant to our best treatments. This makes the speed and scope of U.S. and global treatment and prevention efforts vital to putting AIDS in “the history books” and preventing the evolution of the virus that could become airborne or waterborne.
Viruses are efficient at trading gene segments with other viruses, and sometimes they are incorporated into bacteria. With nearly a third of all HIV/AIDS deaths being the result of tuberculosis infections and already a lacking global health infrastructure to deal with it and other deadly or disabling infectious agents, it is urgent to address global health needs from a more comprehensive perspective.
Recent genetic analysis of the origins of the AIDS virus determined that it first entered the United States in the early 1970s via a steward on a Haitian airline. I returned this week from Haiti, where increasing poverty as a result of food and oil price increases are putting more Haitians at risk of infections.
As many as 1,000 people a day fly out of Port-au-Prince for Miami or New York. We will fail to address the AIDS threat if we make a distinction between foreign and domestic infections, AIDS or TB, poverty or ignorance.
Only a comprehensive focus on global health infrastructure, basic education, adequate nutrition, clean water and sanitation, political and environmental stability, and adequate sustainable economic growth will protect us from what former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin L. Powell once said was a greater threat to our national security than al Qaeda.
There would be no shortage of money if political leaders were willing to put human security needs above their misplaced patronage of national sovereignty. A microtax on global currency speculation could yield the resources needed for such a comprehensive global/domestic approach while also contributing to increased global economic stability. That was the original idea of the “Tobin tax,” which helped economics professor James Tobin win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences nearly 30 years ago.
Pathogens change. Let’s hope our politicians can.