What We’ve Learned From AIDS


Today (or, more precisely, yesterday) was World AIDS Day, whose intent and focus is fairly self-evident. To mark the day, activist and educational events took place the world over, including at the University of Ottawa. Several of my international health students organized and took part in such events, many of which took place over the week leading up to World AIDS Day. I must say, the few student run events that I was able to observe really impressed me. I am extremely proud of these young women and men; teaching them is a joy –though sometimes also a pain in the ass. But mostly a joy. HIV/AIDS is, of course, the great scourge of our time. Malaria kills more people. Diarrhea kills more children. Tuberculosis has a greater global burden. Mental illness has a greater global disability burden. But HIV/AIDS is a particularly insidious disease that cripples economies and eradicates whole societies. In some communities in sub-Saharan Africa, society has been decapitated by the disease, with only small children left to exist in a world devoid of adults. A generation of dispossessed orphans results, with the economic, political and moral impact that such a phenomenon represents. Yet, at one of the World AIDS Day events, my friend and colleague Dr. Paul MacPherson mentioned that, in some ways, AIDS has had a positive impact on the world. His statement has inspired me to list some of the ways in which HIV/AIDS has changed us for the better:

  • We now have an undertanding of immunology light years beyond what we knew before the epidemic.
  • Nations have been forced to come together and forge agreements –such as TRIPS— around the licensing of generic drugs and other such emergency measures which will come into play in future epidemics.
  • Many societies have been forced to consider the civil rights of homosexuals.
  • Heretofore powerful and seemingly selfish individuals, like Bill Gates, have stepped up to create organizations dedicated to the public good.
  • Issues like debt relief and other forms of large scale international development have reached the mainstream agenda.
  • We have developed educational and administrative controls over blood products and sexual behaviours which can be employed by public health forces to address other diseases, like hepatitis and STIs.
  • Common citizens, politicians and businessmen have been forced to learn more science.
  • The plight of Africa has inched ever so closer to the front page.
  • Entire new industries, focused on international health and development, have arisen.
  • The epidemic has inspired art, activism, organization and engagement in circles that otherwise might have remained apathetic.

Got any more?