With 36 million people infected with HIV -- and thus facing death from AIDS -- the world is facing a plague with potentially greater impact than the Black Death that killed as much as half the world's population in the 14th century. And like the bubonic plague of medieval times, AIDS is already affecting the economies of the nations worst hit, as hundreds of thousands of children are orphaned, businesses lose valued workers and health care systems are totally inadequate to cope with the level of disease.
At the conclusion of the United Nations Special Session on HIV/AIDS, delegates agreed that the "leadership by governments in combating HIV/AIDS is essential and their efforts should be complemented by the full and active participation of civil society, the business community and the private sector." But with an expected annual cost of $7 billion to $10 billion to halt the spread of AIDS and reverse its effects and with only a fraction of that amount pledged, it is unlikely that this now-21st century plague will slow down anytime soon.
Cultural impediments: That 22 million have already died of AIDS and AIDS-related diseases and that there is no cure are only part of the problem. Cultural concerns in many nations impede the transmission of information about AIDS prevention -- while, of course, not impeding the transmission of the disease.
Muslim nations, in particular, insisted that the conference's final declaration not include specific references to the groups most vulnerable to the disease -- homosexual men, prostitutes and intravenous drug users. We are reminded of those in this country who object to sex education on the erroneous belief that telling young people what to avoid will only encourage them
But in nations where women must submit to their husbands -- who may be infected -- and have no control over their health care, the disease will take its toll not only of young adults but children as well. Part of the U.N. declaration calls for empowering women to reduce their vulnerability.
In the time such attitudinal changes are achieved, however, some African countries could lose two generations to the AIDS scourge.
Where an appeal to humanity has not brought much of a response from the business community -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a notable exception -- some corporate executives are recognizing the devastating affect AIDS will have on their companies' bottom lines.
A new group, the Global Business Council, has been formed to help battle the disease. Former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is president of the organization. Holbrooke hopes to persuade all major companies doing business in Africa to help fight the spread of the disease, dispel discrimination and care for infected workers.
That's a step in the right direction. If only it were enough.