Much ink has been spilled lately about the uncertain prospect of a worldwide bird flu pandemic that could endanger the lives of millions worldwide. But on Nov. 21 the U.N. and the World Health Organization highlighted the terrible certainty of human suffering and death that AIDS holds for much of the developing world when they released their annual report on that very real global epidemic.
The report estimates there were about 5 million new HIV infections in 2005 -- 64% of them occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, the world's most affected region. That brings the number of people living with HIV worldwide to an estimated 40.3 million. But at least they are living with the scourge: more than 3 million people will die of AIDS-related illnesses in 2005. At least a half-million of the dead will be children.
It's difficult to call the latest report encouraging, but there is some promising news: Kenya and Zimbabwe showed solid declines in infection rates. And Caribbean nations such as the Dominican Republic and Haiti showed a drop in infection rates for pregnant women as well as signs of increased condom use and voluntary testing for HIV status.
Positive stories like these suggest that the worldwide push to raise awareness is having an impact on transmission. Why is public education so important? Because there is not enough affordable medicine to effectively treat the afflicted outside the richest nations. There are only about 1 million HIV patients receiving AIDS drugs in the developing world, and it's likely that upwards of 250,000 lives were saved last year thanks to such therapy. But it's small change given the need.
More comprehensive education about how not to contract or transmit the disease means ultimately there will be fewer people who require costly care. Indeed, in this epidemic, with so many victims residing in poor nations with limited treatment resources, prevention is still the best medicine.