The Global AIDS Pandemic and the Jewish Response


The Global AIDS Pandemic and the Jewish Response

By Ruth Messinger

Edited versions of this article appeared in The New York Jewish Week and Jewish Currents in December 2003.

AIDS is an epidemic that is wreaking horror on the world. It is past time to reflect upon what our responsibility is to help. As Jews, the obligation to save a human life is foremost in our religious teachings and history as a people.

The Jewish community has been steadfast in its support, both financial and political, in helping to fight HIV/AIDS in the United States. I wish I could say the same about the international crisis. On that front, too many Jews and too many Americans seem disengaged.

As president of American Jewish World Service, I have had the opportunity to see first hand in Africa, Asia and Latin America the devastating impact this pandemic is having on individuals, communities and entire countries. In these areas of the world, the disease is not diminishing; it is growing at alarmingly high rates.

I need to share some statistics to highlight the magnitude of the problem. More than twenty-eight million people have already died of AIDS. There are now 42 million people worldwide living with the virus, and 3 million have died this year alone. It is projected that between 2000 and 2020, 68 million more people will die prematurely from AIDS, 55 million of whom will be in sub-Saharan Africa. In Botswana, as just one example, there is nearly a 40% infection rate, the highest in the world, and life expectancy has dropped to 39 years old.

The statistics are overwhelming. Still, we must not retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. We must focus instead on the mitzvah that to save one life is to save the world.

There have been enormous advances in treating HIV/AIDS, especially in the United States, allowing people to live productive and long lives. However, even here the cost of antiretroviral drugs remains extraordinarily high and out of reach for too many individuals. And the reduced price negotiated for developing countries - about $365 per patient per year - is unattainable in the poorest countries where the annual income can be $300 or less per year. Generic drugs can dramatically reduce the costs for developing countries, but patents and trade agreements have hindered their widespread manufacture and availability.

It should be noted, however, that just recently the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation has been successful in negotiating with several generic drug manufacturers to provide the drugs to four African and nine Caribbean countries for about 37 cents per patient per day. This is a tremendous achievement which must be expanded.

On World AIDS Day this year, the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, announced its commitment and challenge to developing nations to treat 3 million people by the end of 2005. This was in response to the fact that of the 42 million people now infected, some 6 million are in immediate need of antiretroviral treatment. We support this initiative which will require about $5.5 billion to implement, but recognize that because of the scope of this global emergency, this means that 3 million people will, needlessly, still die. We must do better.

Access to lifesaving drugs has even become an issue in the United States, the richest country in the world. Senior citizens are going to Canada to purchase drugs at an enormous discount. Entire cities - like Springfield, Massachusetts - now provide their employees with drugs from Canada because their municipal budgets can no longer afford the cost of domestic drugs. The current Medicare bill was stalled by debate on the cost of drugs. People living with HIV/AIDS are being denied access to critical meds.

The issues surrounding generic drugs, patent laws and company profits are complicated. However, after 20 years in government I know a political problem when I see it. Given the current and projected loss of life, we cannot and must not accept any excuses for not putting this issue high on the agenda of our elected representatives. Needed drugs must be made available to all patients, domestic and international.

This brings me back to my original point: we have no choice. As Jews we must step forward and do everything we can to save human life. As American Jews, we have the affluence and influence to change the course of the future: to prevent the deaths of 3 million women, men and children every year. You can be sure that our children and grandchildren will be asking us what we did while so many died.

So what can we do? Philanthropic support to organizations like AJWS, which currently funds 47 groups fighting HIV/AIDS in the developing world, 36 of which are in Africa, is welcome, but there are other things we can do, and I believe are obligated to do, to help. Some are easy, others more difficult.

Write your elected officials and ask them to eliminate trade agreements and corporate patents that obstruct the availability of generic drugs to developing countries. Join the Jewish Coalition Responding to HIV/AIDS, which advocates for the elimination of foreign debt of poor nations and the expansion of funds for AIDS prevention and treatment services. Help support a community project in Africa or the Caribbean. Invite a speaker to your synagogue to educate and motivate congregants. Visit our Web site and learn more about global AIDS and how you can help:

I hope that the next time I write a column, we will be celebrating the future with the announcement of a cure, but, if not, with treatment for all people regardless of their economic status. And it would be gratifying to know that Jews have taken the lead in making this happen, continuing to be a light unto all nations.