With 22 million people dead, AIDS is worst epidemic of modern times

Posted: Monday, June 11, 2001

Twenty years ago, five gay men in Los Angeles were reported to have a rare form of pneumonia. Last week, we entered the third decade of what we now recognize as the AIDS plague. In the time from the first outbreaks to the present, the toll has been staggering. According to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, the disease has infected 58 million people worldwide; 22 million of those infected have died.

Among the names we can put to these numbers are those of dancer Rudolf Nureyev, tennis player Arthur Ashe and painter Keith Haring. Maybe you, like me, have your own sad additions to this list, names of friends, relatives or neighbors lost too soon to pain and wasting away. Maybe you have seen the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an exercise of remembrance that has grown, square by sorrowful square, to span more than 48 miles.

In the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that AIDS has killed about half a million people, AIDS has touched so many parts of our lives. A whole generation has now grown up in the shadow of the disease, and with the social changes it has wrought.

Some of these changes could be described as positive, such as the greater role patients now take in their own treatment and the stepped-up philanthropic efforts for a variety of other ailments, notably breast cancer. We know more now, as a nation, and are more careful about the dangers of unprotected sex. And AIDS has brought about an increased awareness and acceptance of the basic rights of gays and lesbians in the culture at large.

But every silver lining is thin, and the clouds are so very large and looming. What good that came, came at far too high a price.

In the United States, too, there is a tendency to think of AIDS as a disease that has run its course or is on the wane. Educational awareness programs have changed behavior, leading to lower rates of infection in high-risk groups. The so-called cocktail of drugs means that AIDS no longer seems like an automatic death sentence. Lives have been saved, but complacency is dangerous with a disease that infects many more every day.

In fact, in a global sense, medical scientists fear that the AIDS epidemic is just getting started. With scant resources to halt the rate of infection or treat the already sick, Africa reels with more than 25 million of the estimated 36 million people worldwide who are HIV-positive. AIDS is also making troubling headway in some of the world's most populous countries, such as India. Millions of children are being orphaned in societies that are ill-equipped to care for them.

Tragedy might be too small a word to describe misery on this scale. And it continues, with thousands dying each day and thousands more infected daily. It is now almost commonplace to see AIDS compared to the bubonic plague; AIDS surely represents the worst epidemic of modern times and will soon surpass the Black Death -- an epidemic that wiped out between a quarter and a third of Europe -- in lives lost.

But numbers like this numb, and numb is what we cannot afford to be. So think of a single face -- maybe a loved one, maybe someone famous, maybe an AIDS victim you have seen in a photograph. Feel the loss of that one person, that one face and personality. And, while praying for a cure or a vaccine, multiply that face by more times than you can imagine.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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