Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods provide dramatic footage for captivated American television viewers. But other disasters are less telegenic. HIV/AIDS steals lives one by one, often in the dark and dingy corners of the world where no camera is waiting to record the end of a struggle against a brutal killer.
Although it is rarely found on the front pages of newspapers, it continues to sweep away nearly 8,000 lives each and every day. Even more distressing, another 13,000 individuals are infected daily.
Why does it get so little attention? Partially because it lacks the drama we seem to crave in our media-bite-driven world. But another reason is that myths about HIV/AIDS continue to flourish, confusing and dissipating our response to those in need.
As people of faith stand on the front line of this disaster, we must educate each other about the facts so that we can respond out of concern and knowledge. Some of the most common myths about HIV/AIDS include:
Myth 1: HIV/AIDS occurs mostly in men. Sadly, as many women as men are now infected with HIV worldwide, and the trends are alarming. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly two-thirds of those infected are women, with women ages 15 to 24 being three times more likely to contract HIV. Even in countries where the rates are still higher among men, the rate among women is increasing steadily.
The reasons for this are biological, economic, and cultural. A double standard continues to thrive: An infected man will go on to infect between two and 20 women (or girls) during a decade of latent infection, before he even shows symptoms. And women are more economically vulnerable, especially when they have children and must find a way to provide for them.
Myth 2: HIV/AIDS is mostly a problem in Africa. HIV infections are now reported in every country in the world. China, where the statistics are not verified, has a skyrocketing rate that could eclipse much of the rest of the world due to the size of its population. Russia has a growing rate primarily due to intravenous drug usage. India has the highest infections rate outside of Africa.
Sadly, it may have been easy to ignore the problem in Africa because so few countries on that continent are significant trading partners with the United States. But India and China, for example, will be severely impacted by the growing infection rate, potentially leading to economic and even political instability.
Myth 3: A cure will be found soon. While more and more people are being treated with anti-retrovirals (ARVs) worldwide, there is still no cure in sight. The cost of treatment is still high and a person must remain on the ARV regimen for the rest of his or her life.
Most scientists are less optimistic that a cure or vaccine to prevent an infection will be discovered soon. The virus is truly diabolical. It mutates, develops immunities to treatment, and has now developed multiple strains. Many in faith communities believe that this is further evidence that prayer is required in fighting this killer. It will take more than scientific research to beat this disease.
Myth 4: AIDS won’t affect most Americans. Although deaths from HIV/AIDS have declined in the United States due to widespread use of anti-retrovirals, the infection rate has not dropped over the past decade. HIV/AIDS is still alive and well in the United States.
In addition, a worldwide tuberculosis epidemic is considered likely, mostly because it thrives in regions where immunities are suppressed by HIV. Doctors call HIV/AIDS and TB the “terrible twins.” But unlike HIV, which can only be contracted through intercourse or blood exchange, TB is airborne and easier to contract. The infection rate is increasing in almost every region of the world, including the United States.
Myth 5: There’s nothing we can do. Comforting those who suffer and righting the injustices that help the disease flourish are missions that can overwhelm those who have no faith. Looking at this situation humanly can quickly lead to cynicism and exhaustion. That is one of many reasons why the faith community must continue to stand strong in this battle.
Most Christian ministries have specific AIDS programs, and an increasing number of local churches have found ways to participate. It will take all these efforts and more to respond to what many consider the greatest disaster of our time. But as people called to offer a cup of water in Jesus’ name, we can do no less.
Dale Hanson Bourke is the author of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis (Authentic). December 1 is World AIDS Day, the international day of action on HIV and AIDS.