HIV is the Future of Global Health

As epidemics go, HIV is ideally suited to engage people’s attention. It affects people in poor countries, and in rich countries. It’s deadly if untreated. It’s infectious. It’s made worse by poverty but being rich is no protection against being infected. It ties in to sex and drugs and very possibly rock and roll. That gets attention.

Everyone knows about AIDS. Tajik villagers know about AIDS. Conservative Christians who live in gated communities know about AIDS. The stoner from my high school math class knows about AIDS (he just posted a Facebook update about it).

HIV is our single most visible global health problem.

Add to that the fact that, scientifically, we’re closing in on HIV. We’ve got good treatment. We’re got a whole range of prevention tools, from condoms to pre-exposure prophylaxis to public policy. And there’s promising research going on right now about prevention and treatment. HIV is not some mystery virus; it’s an old enemy and we know which attacks work.

HIV is our easy problem. I know that sounds crazy, but think about it. It’s high profile all over the world and it’s been well researched medically. That’s much more than we have against any other disease. There’s been a lot of research on Tuberculosis, for example, but it’s hard to keep it moving because rich people don’t get TB, making it less interesting to drug companies. And there’s not much public support, because most people in wealthy countries don’t even know people still get Tuberculosis. Same with polio, and pneumonia. Or take cancer. Cancer has incredibly high awareness but we know squat about real prevention and our treatments are still barbaric.

If we can’t win against HIV, we can’t win against anything. HIV is the disease we have a chance at. The choices we make about HIV are the easiest global health choices we get. Let’s not screw them up.