Thursday, October 28, 2010

What's newsworthy, anyway?

As part of my ongoing quest to reconnect myself with the developed world, I’ve been checking out and downloading NPR podcasts and trying to compensate for 2.5 years of being out of the current events loop. In the last month, I’ve learned about the suicides of gay teens in the US, the kidnapping and subsequent release of an aid worker in Somalia, earthquakes and tsunamis in Southeast Asia, the rescue of 33 miners in Chile, an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, a Pennsylvania woman who allegedly killed her 4 children, etc. These things matter.

But right next to those stories I see others about Lindsey Lohan’s most recent “tweets” about her drug problem, rapper TI’s parole violations (he tried to buy several machine guns from the trunk of an undercover cop car in a grocery store parking lot, got out on parole, and then rolled up next to a cop at a stop light while smoking something illegal...), $8000 bejeweled i-phones, and all sorts of things that are of absolutely no consequence to 99.99% of the world.

And I start to wonder: Is this really NEWS? And, more importantly: WHO CARES? Aren’t there more IMPORTANT things going on in the world?

Then yesterday I stumbled across the most recent annual report of UNAIDS (the UN Agency for AIDS) at the UNAIDS Blog ( Arguably, AIDS is a little bit more important than Sandra Bullock’s most recent beach vacation with her adopted baby boy (especially since it directly affects at least 35 million more people than does their vacation) but stories about HIV/AIDS aren’t really news anymore. And I understand why…it’s depressing and showing no real signs of improvement. Since the “discovery” of the virus in 1981, there have been very few changes in the world of HIV: developments in anti-retroviral drugs that slow the progression of the disease, increases in funding and efforts by humanitarian organizations and governments to thwart the pandemic or mitigate its impact, countless failed vaccine trials and curative drugs for the disease, and a steadily increasing rate of infection with the largest concentration in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But, for the 33.4 million people in the world currently living with HIV, their friends, their families, and their communities, it’s a pretty big deal.

As Americans, HIV is something that we’re able to easily write off as being someone else’s problem. We believe that it’s something that affects people who have casual sex or use drugs, or affects poor Africans that we have no relation to whatsoever, and most of us don’t know anyone who is HIV-positive or who has been affected by HIV in some significant way.

In reality, though, it’s something that affects everyone, not just gay men and drug users and prostitutes you’ll never meet. It affects women who are raped in the Congo. And children of women who are HIV-positive. And people who undergo traditional blood-letting ceremonies as rites of passage, during which they’re cut with shared razor blades. And it affects people of all races, all religions, all nationalities and ethnicities, and in all countries.

Here are the statistics I found most sobering:

There are 1.4 million people in North America living with HIV, and an estimated 55,000 people were infected in 2008 alone. In 2008, there were 25,000 AIDS-related deaths in the US. Though the adult prevalence rate is only 0.4% in the US, some cities (like San Francisco and Washington, DC) have rates higher than those of African countries.

Since the beginning of the epidemic in the 1980s, 60 million people have been infected with the virus, and 25 million have died of AIDS-related causes.

Each year there are an estimated 2.7 million new infections in the world, 40% of which are in young people aged 15-24. Another 430,000 children born with HIV each year.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 67% of global HIV infections (22.4 million people), and 91% of new infections among children, and the epidemic has orphaned more than 14 million children in Africa alone.

Less than 40% of people who are HIV-positive know that they are HIV-positive, and unless they know they can’t get treatment or protect their partners and unborn babies.

For every two people starting treatment for HIV, another five are infected with the virus.

Only 38% of HIV-positive children in need of treatment are currently receiving it.

One in three HIV-positive people also suffers from tuberculosis, which is the leading cause of death among HIV-positive people. (Yet TB is both preventable and curable.)

And it’s not just the 33.4 million infected who are affected: it’s the families that take care of them, the children they orphaned, the friends who have to watch them go through depression and eventual decline, the employers who suffer the effects of absenteeism, insurance companies that have to cover the cost of exorbitantly expensive anti-retroviral drugs, the communities that suffer in the absence after their death (especially in the developing world), and everyone else in the world who pays taxes to a government that provides aid for HIV-positive people. (That last category probably includes you.)

See, it’s way more important than Vince Vaughn’s slightly homophobic one-liner in his latest movie, which happened to be the second “Most Popular” story on sometime last week…right after “How to make your YouTube video go viral.” Hard-hitting, life-changing stuff, right?

And it’s not just the lack of caring about HIV that gets me, it’s also the KINDS of HIV and AIDS-related things that are deemed newsworthy. (And I’m guilty of it too in this blog post…) All the news is negative. It’s about failures and wasted money and deaths and new infections. There’s nothing about the fact that this year there are 10 times as many people on ARVs than there were just 5 years ago, which means less deaths and less orphans than before. Stories about the rate of HIV infection stabilizing in countries like Botswana and Lesotho are relegated to the bottom of the Africa section on, even though for Botswanans and Lesothoans that’s a big deal. Stories about people working to change the lives of HIV-positive children or NGOs that are making headway in preventing new infections are relegated to local newspapers even though those individuals and NGOs are a big part of the reason that the pandemic seems to be slowing in a lot of countries. And every failed drug trial or failed vaccine really is a step closer than the one before, but all we see in the news is that YET ANOTHER drug has failed to prevent/cure HIV.

So, yes, HIV is bad. It’s horrible. I actually can’t imagine anything worse than a virus with a 100% fatality rate that disproportionately affects poor women and children in developing countries. But every step taken against HIV is a step in the right direction. Every 15-year-old HIV-positive child who is still alive thanks to ARVs from WHO is progress. Every teenager who chooses to use condoms to protect himself from HIV infection like his MSF-funded summer camp taught him is one more person who will be spared infection. Every pregnant woman who learns her HIV status at her local free clinic and follows all the rule of PMTCT gives birth to one more HIV-negative baby. Many governments and international organizations, and countless NGOs and individuals are working hard on a regional or individual level, changing future of the pandemic a little bit each day. And researchers are much more familiar with the HIV virus than they were 30 years ago when this whole pandemic started.

So that’s what I call “news.”

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