For over 20 years, epidemiologists monitoring the spread of HIV/AIDS have watched the virus’s steady expansion into all major global populations. Defying geographical and cultural boundaries, the spread of HIV is now a true pandemic, rather than a series of sporadic, demarcated outbreaks typical to epidemics.

Many scientists anticipated the spread of the virus would follow a traditional epidemiological path, accelerating throughout the human species before natural biological processes saw it reach a natural saturation level, a ceiling point.

However, on 2 July, as global leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS were preparing to meet in Barcelona for the XIV International AIDS Confer-ence, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UN-AIDS) announced the findings of a new report that was to come as a shocking blow to the projections of epidemiologists.

Not only had the virus failed to reach a ceiling point, the United Nations figures showed the number of new infections in the worst affected countries accelerating and spreading rapidly to new groups in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.

In the worst cases in sub-Saharan nations including Botswana, Mozambique and Swaziland, the virus was present in one in three adults -“ dramatically exceeding any previous predictions for HIV’s natural saturation point.

Not only was there now overwhelming evidence that no nation on the globe was safe from the pandemic, but by its very nature, HIV/AIDS could devastate entire populations -“ and had already done so.

Bernard Gardiner is one of a number of Australians now working at an international level to halt the pandemic. The former CEO of the Victorian AIDS Council has recently been appointed to head up the AIDS Global Program for the International Red Cross.

Speaking from Geneva this week to Sydney Star Observer, Gardiner explained the frightening dangers of HIV’s relentless growth.

In a global sense this is just the beginning of the pandemic. Given the number of lives already lost and the number of people currently infected, the real story is a heart-stopper, said Gardiner.

This is an extremely aggressive virus and the potential for the destruction of human life, economies, countries, security and basic humanity is just so apparent and so significant that we can’t afford to sit on our hands and allow this catastrophe to keep going any longer.

Gardiner’s concerns had already been echoed in speeches delivered throughout the week-long conference. In the world’s emerging HIV hot zones, including the extensive populations of China, Indonesia and India, young people were contracting about half of all new adult infections.

This is one indicator that countries are in big trouble in terms of their on-going development. These young people are their future workforce and it’s the basis of the stability of the country that is being undermined, Gardiner said.

If we can prevent the HIV epidemic getting a hold, it is in our interest if we want a stable region. Australia is connected to its region. We cannot isolate ourselves. If we see Africa-style epidemics surfacing in the Asia Pacific, in three of the largest populations in the world, Australia is going to be in some trouble both economically and by way of our national security.

Many nations will be put at risk. AIDS can produce a de-stabilisation of our region and that point is proven by the fact that HIV is the only health issue that has been on the agenda of the UN Security Council, he said.

The UN report’s alarming findings on the spread of HIV/AIDS became a centrepiece argument of activists, humanitarians and health organisations present at the conference who called on governments to act immediately and decisively against the spread of the virus.

Many delegates at the Barcelona conference, including Gardiner, assert that the solution to the current HIV crisis is clear: immediate action by political leaders to create the right political and economic climate for antiretroviral therapy to be distributed effectively in developed nations.

The impatience has grown stronger. Technically we know it won’t be easy to turn this epidemic around. Socially we know it’s not easy, but each year it gets delayed the problem gets worse and each year it’s delayed the harder it gets to deal with it.

The devastating impact of political complacency was also highlighted in Barcelona by the World Health Organi-sation (WHO).

WHO director Dr Bernhard Schwartlander told the conference that if governments continue to stall in meeting funding commitments to fight HIV, the result will translate to an additional 45 million new infections within eight years.

Further, Schwartlander concluded that complacency will lead to an additional 5 million deaths per year at a time when scientists believe antiretrovirals are able to offer infected people the chance to lead normal lives -“ with a total estimate of around 29 million lives potentially saved by 2010.

We need to be smart and look ahead. We need to put in this money now to prevent millions of deaths and an international security problem and we need to realise that it would be a very wise investment. That would be taking a sort of leadership that is visionary. That’s true leadership and I think Australia can get there, Gardiner said.

I would be concerned about a world where people didn’t get impatient about being able to save 29 million lives by 2010. It’s a good sign that humanitarian values are alive and well and that an era of accountability really has arrived.

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