Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

AIDS twenty-five years ago:

When I was an urban minister in San Francisco in 1981, I heard about a strange new form of cancer affecting gay men. The doctors called it “KS” and “GRIDS” (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome). By 1984, HIV was identified and the disease became known as AIDS—a deadly killer.

Patient Zero was identified in New York as the first carrier of the deadly virus. In 1983, Malcolm, the first person I knew who was living with AIDS, came to my church in San Francisco. In 1986 I performed my first AIDS funeral. In 1987, one of our Sunday School kids, Joey, got AIDS and died. By 1988, the number of AIDS cases in America reported to the CDC totaled 55,000. By 1991, a year after I had left my church to became an AIDS Chaplain, the cumulative number of AIDS infections in America had reached 270,000—most of whom had or would eventually die. The disease had doubled, and would continue doubling, every 18 months.

Global AIDS 25 years later:

Here are the alarming statistics from the UN and WorldHealth Organization released November 20, 2007:

• 1.2 million people are living with HIV/AIDS in the USA
• 24.7 million people are living with HIV/AID in sub-Saharan Africa
• An estimated 39.5 million people world wide are now infected with the virus.
• Some 2.9 million have died this year from AIDS-related illnesses.
• 4.3 million more were infected with HIV
• Infection rates are on the rise. Young people between 15-24 account for 40% of new infections world wide.
• AIDS has killed more the 25 million people since the first case was reported in 1981.
• 63% of the world’s infected people live in Sub-Sahara Africa
• 17.7 million women worldwide living with HIV/AIDS.
• In Sub-Saharan Africa, women with AIDS account for 59% of the total cases. (UN AIDS epidemic update and World Health Organization, Nov 20, 2007. Source: AP )

Also, consider this:

Five people die of AIDS every minute
In the same amount of time, nine more people are infected with HIV
Total who have died of AIDS since 1981: about 25 million—the same number who are now infected in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are at least 12 million AIDS orphans on the continent of Africa!

The good news is…that HIV/AIDS can be treated by ARV’s and managed as a chronic disease, and is no longer an automatic death sentance.

Good news for those who can afford and can access ARV drug treatment. Not every one in Africa can be tested and put on ARV’s due to lack of resources, transportation, and nutrition. Denial and stigmatization also loom large in countries like Malawi.

Malawi is a small land-locked country of 13 million in the sub-Sahara, bordering Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. Malawi is particularly vulnerable to famine and disease, and suffers disproportionately from extreme poverty and AIDS. Currently, AIDS infects 25%-33% of the population and accounts for over 85,000 deaths per year, leaving 900,000 AIDS orphans.

Who is the Face of Global AIDS?

In order to put a face to all these numbers, I will tell you the story of Jinnee --one in a million AIDS orphans in Malawi!

Jinnee, a beautiful eight-year old girl, was selected from many in her village to go to camp for a week. “It is not our mission to provide food or medical aid,” the director of Children in the Wilderness explained to me. “What we offer is a camping experience that leads to educational empowerment.”

But Jinnee was not just in need of an educational camp experience. She also needed food and medicine to live. Her parents had died of AIDS and her Grandmother had become her guardian. The grandmother agreed to have Jinnee tested, and sure enough, she was HIV positive.

Jinnee was eligible to receive antiretroviral drugs (only available in Malawi since 2003), but she was unable to access the AIDS treatment for lack of resources. Her grandmother could not afford the nutritional supplements to make the treatment effective, or provide the transportation necessary to get to the AIDS clinic in the city.

Untreated and under-nourished, Jinnee’s health deteriorated. While it was not the organization’s mission to provide food and medical assistance, a camp counselor found a way to transport Jinnee to the Rainbow Clinic in Mzuzu—one of the clinics CitiHope channels medicine to.

At the Rainbow clinic, painted with bright colors and murals depicting a Black African Jesus welcoming children into his arms, Dr. Joseph Yu, one of our ministry partners from Taiwan Medical Mission, arranged for a nutrition program as well as medical treatment. It saved her life. Now she can return to camp and benefit from the educational experience and social empowerment programs which she deserves!

Whew. A flood of emotion just hit me, as it did last September when I heard this story in Malawi. Why are my eyes tearing right now as I write? Tomorrow is December 1, World AIDS Day. It is also “Family Survival Day” in our family of four. Every year on this day we pause to remember the day nine years ago when our daughter, Megan, was diagnosed with childhood leukemia.

After 26 months of chemotherapy, her life was saved. So, on December 1st each year we gather and pour Martinelli’s sparkling cider into Russian crystal goblets. I lift my glass and toast “to the girl who lived…” This year, I will also remember Jinnie, and all the other children who simply want to live.

It is deeply gratifying to be part of a ministry that helps thousands of orphans like Jinnee survive the Global AIDS crisis.
How do the people of God heed the biblical call to ‘seek justice, encourage the oppressed, care for the widow and the orphan and visit the sick and imprisoned’ (Isaiah 1:17; 58:6; Matt 25)

The best way, of course, is to be a “Good Samaritan” to the person in your path (Luke 10:25). “Who is my neighbor?” the attorney asked Jesus. The truth of the parable is that the one who at some risk shows compassion and cares for the stranger in need is the kind of neighbor who heeds God’s call.

Beyond personal compassion and care, we can join campaigns like ONE.org dedicated to mobilizing people and resources to end extreme poverty and global AIDS in our life time. Bono is a great champion of this plan of action, as I’ve profiled in a previous blog.

We can also get involved in relief and development organizations that are working to alleviate extreme poverty and AIDS in the third world: World Vision, Jubilee Network, Church World Service, Save the Children and Compassion International are among the many trustworthy, faith-based, humanitarian organizations that are making a difference in the world.

My particular involvement over the past 25 years has been with CitiHope International—a non-sectarian, Christian, humanitarian relief and development agency working in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

CitiHope’s mission in Malawi is to bring help and hope to vulnerable children and their families by supplying nutritional meals to orphans, widows and abandoned children; delivering life-saving medicine to hospitals and rural clinics; and providing Pastoral and Congregational Care Training (PACCT) in AIDS prevention and compassionate care in communities suffering from AIDS.

So far this year CitiHope International and its ministry partners have

• provided a million nutritional meals to 2,800 orphans in six Orphan Care Centers and 21 schools, prisons and other social institutions,
• assisted 11,780 patients in 10 hospitals and rural clinics by delivering $1.7 million dollars of medicine, and
• trained and equipped 40 pastors and staff in dealing with the social and spiritual issues surrounding HIV/AIDS in their churches

Next year, with your help, we could do more.

If you would like to make a donation to CitiHope's relief work in Malawi, or receive a ‘Hope Gazette’ newsletter, or volunteer to go on a mission trip, visit www.citihope.org

As John Wesley said: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”