The Common Good

Celebrating the Miraculous on World AIDS Day

Drummers and dancers perform songs to educate a community about HIV and AIDS in Zambia.

As people of faith, it is not uncommon to pray for miracles when faced with overwhelming obstacles. For many of us, AIDS has been one of those mind-boggling, heart-wrenching causes that has wreaked havoc on the world and been the subject of many prayers. 

Since the early days of the disease, the focus has been on a cure. Researchers worked tirelessly for it and the faithful asked God to provide it. But the cure has never come.

And yet, as we mark another AIDS Day this Saturday, Dec. 1, there is evidence of the miraculous. 

After 24 years of commemorating this day with grim statistics and little hope, there is finally good news. 

Millions of people are receiving treatment. Many fewer people are dying.

The new infection rate has dropped by 50 percent or more in 25 countries since 2001. With access to treatment, being HIV-positive is now considered a chronic disease, not a fatal one. 

Pregnant women in most of the world now are tested for HIV and offered a treatment that means their babies will be disease free, even if they themselves are infected.

“Getting to Zero” is the slogan now used to describe the goal of a world in which no baby is born HIV-positive. It is a slogan — an idea that would have seemed completely absurd only a few years ago.

As someone who has worked on the periphery of AIDS for the last decade, I have been a witness to both the best and the worst. Sadly, I watched too many suffer and die before treatment was available. I saw those who were infected be shunned and stigmatized. I listened to the grim statistics for years and heard even the best doctors offer little hope of getting ahead of the disease. 

Despite all of that, I also saw how many people refused to give up. Year after year, in the face of overwhelming odds and the constant bad news, doctors and researchers, volunteers and villagers simply did what they could to fight the disease and help those who suffered.

My friend Linda started an income generation program for a group of widows in Zambia. Her Chikumbuso project now supports not only the widows, but also dozens of orphans and many others in the community affected by AIDS. 

Groesbeck left family and his medical practice in the United States for months on end while he treated some of the poorest women on Earth. Because of him, thousands of women who are HIV-positive are now receiving treatment for cervical cancer, a disease that was silently taking poor women’s lives across the world.         

Constance, a woman who lost her children to the disease, refused to give in to grief and instead became a peer counselor, saving the lives of many HIV/AIDS  patients who were newly receiving treatment. 

Elizabeth helped support a home for girls who were HIV-positive and living on the streets.

Manasseh created prevention slogans for billboards and wrote a column about AIDS for the local newspaper.

What happened in the war against AIDS was not a sudden discovery or even a global commitment to one approach. Rather it was a sustained response by scientists and ordinary citizens to do whatever it took to battle the disease on every front.          

No one saw how it would all come together — that treatment would one day be accessible and affordable, that frank messages about behavior would become common on billboards and in sermons, and that even the poorest people would voluntarily take responsibility to care for those around them who suffered.  

It is this remarkable convergence of hope in the face of overwhelming odds and stubborn commitment to an unknown path that is helping to win the war against AIDS.

No, God has not answered the prayer for a cure. But along the way God has answered the prayers of many faithful who asked simply for the strength to go on, for the ability to care for one more person in need, for the audacity to hope in the face of the odds. 

On this AIDS Day, many will celebrate the positive statistics.

For people of faith, it is a day to thank God for miracles.

Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis and served as president of a foundation supporting AIDS work in Africa.  She is a board member of MAP International.  Follow Dale on Twitter @DaleHBourke or on Facebook. Photos courtesy of the author. Bottom photo pictures Chikumbuso founder, Linda Wilkinson, with some of children who attend the organization's school in the Ngombe neighborhood of Lusaka, Zambia

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