If you had the option to save the life of one person you know or 12 people you have never met, which would you choose? What if you could either end all cancer in America or cure AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria globally, which diseases would you choose to stop?
If you chose the first option in both questions, you’re certainly not alone among Americans. Preferring the option that directly impacts your own life is understandable and choosing to cure cancer in America over diseases that will likely never afflict people you know is just human instinct. On a practical level, however, curing AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria – which in 2006 killed 12 times more people in the world than cancer did in America – would make more sense. Yet, since the number of Americans who have died from AIDS since the first case was reported in America in 1981 is just barely approaching the number who died from cancer last year (about 550,000), cancer is much more salient in the minds of Americans.
This dilemma between solving remote, faraway problems versus personal, local issues is something that is becoming increasingly relevant in the United States as the government’s budget allocations for 2007 and 2008 are debated. Congress faces similar would -you-rather questions as it decides on allocations for 2007 discretionary spending, yet it is pressured to give more money to the war in Iraq after President Bush outlined his plan to add 21,500 troops last week. Should Congress use its money to further finance the war or should it maintain funding for humanitarian efforts that fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria abroad?
The budget situation in Congress became a prominent issue last week as AIDS activists and government organizations, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, rallied to gain support for the $1 billion that may soon be designated for the diseases. The director of PEPFAR announced last week that if Congress doesn’t opt to use the billion dollars toward AIDS relief, come March, the antiviral drug treatment given to HIV patients abroad – with 50,000 new patients each month – would no longer have enough funding to continue.
The government’s attempts to fight AIDS on a global level thus far are laudable. President Bush is largely to thank for successful organizations that fund HIV/AIDS research, prevention techniques and drug treatments abroad. PEPFAR – which, as its website states, is “the largest commitment ever by any nation for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease” – is one example. But the dilemma the government currently faces with discretionary spending shows that America’s approach to attacking the disease might be misguided and in need of adjustment.
The government has a tendency to treat AIDS like a business and monetary concern, rather than a global emergency. This marketization of AIDS is perhaps what led a business school senior in my biology class to say last week, “There’s a lot of money to be made in AIDS,” referring specifically to the prevalence of the disease in Africa. Apparently, the love of money and business causes some to see a disease that kills millions of people every year and infects almost 12,000 more people everyday as a business and a problem that can be resolved with the right amount of money and sweet talk.
In reality, curing AIDS is much deeper than just writing a big check to health organizations in Africa or financially backing scientists researching a be-all, end-all cure. Rather, AIDS needs to be treated with a more humanitarian mindset, and the government must drive energy and concern about this issue – something non-governmental organizations, such as Bono’s Red line, are currently doing successfully As Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told the San Francisco Chronicle, “If you don’t raise an issue and don’t organize around what is important, things do fall by the wayside.”
Even if the government decides to give AIDS research the additional $1 billion it is requesting it’s still insufficient if it doesn’t increase the attention and publicity directed toward the disease. And until the government treats AIDS like the pervasive pandemic that it is – not just a monetary issue that can be overlooked when more prevalent issues arise in the country – it will remain an unimportant issue in the minds of most Americans.
In the long run, it’s not about teaching Americans to be humanitarian and encouraging them to save the life of 12 people they’ve never met. Instead, it’s about teaching by example ethical judgment and that the world is not always about money and financial success. There are other things in the world – like the more than 39.5 million people living with AIDS today – that people like my biology classmate might be surprised to learn about.
Theresa Kennelly is an associate editorial page editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.