The Lessons of HIV/AIDS

Courtesy Reuters


If the deadly bird flu discussed in the previous three essays were ever to sweep across the world, the impact on national security would be obvious everywhere. Nations rich and poor would quickly recognize the vulnerabilities of their citizens, economies, public health systems, and armed forces.

But what about the security implications of an existing pandemic, HIV/AIDS, the full impact of which is taking years to be felt? When the disease first struck, few leaders of the hardest-hit countries in sub-Saharan Africa acknowledged the links between HIV/AIDS, social stability, and national security. It took many of them two decades to face facts, and by then HIV/AIDS had spread through their populations and killed large numbers. Nor was such myopia limited to Africa; it was prevalent in developed countries as well. The resulting delays have caused millions of deaths around the world.

Were the Asian bird flu to start infecting humans, the death toll would rise even more quickly. Preparation is therefore critical. Unfortunately, the example of the HIV/AIDS pandemic is not reassuring. Adequate resources for combating the disease have yet to be marshaled, even though the potential for it to cause destabilization has now been recognized at the international level. In 2000, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 1308, warning that the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, could threaten world stability and security. Five years after its passage, the resolution will be formally reviewed this July.

AIDS has killed at least 26 million people, orphaning more than 12 million children, and today the virus afflicts 40 million people directly. Although the illness was first officially recognized in the United States in 1981, it has raged in the Great Lakes region of Africa since the 1970s. And yet policymakers still lack sufficient data, computer modeling, and empirical analyses of the disease for effective guidance on prevention and treatment. As a result, the pandemic's impact on economic activity, agricultural practices, childhood development, and the credibility of political leaders is still poorly understood.

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