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Why Nature Is Trying To Kill Us Part I

Updated on September 30, 2008

Medicine can destroy a disease. It can isolate a smallpox strain, hunt it down in every corner of the planet where it hides and finally, dramatically exterminate it. Yes, medicine can rid the world of a single disease. Medicine, the grail of modern man! The conqueror of faceless killers, the savior of mothers and babies, the rock of safety in a hostile world.

Medicine can annihilate smallpox. That much is true.

But only at the cost of sparking the spread of AIDS, hemorrhagic fevers, cancers...

No, there is no direct, knee-jerk correlation between smallpox and AIDS. It is not correct to say that for every case of smallpox we avoid, we sentence one AIDS sufferer to death. There are no research studies published in peer-reviewed journals that can get picked up by the tabloids to trumpet in the headlines “Smallpox Cure Caused AIDS!”

But it is the very act of the elimination of a disease that brings on many more. For disease is not an individual mechanistic unreasoned scourge. It is a system of checks and balances that rule and direct our evolution and our very existence. It is the balance scale of life itself.

And the balance scale of life is untippable.

For every conquest over disease, we suffer greater defeats on another field of battle.

There is no exception.

American and European life expectancies have soared. People are living much longer, and with far greater health than even just 50 years ago. In this case, medicine has been a triumph. There can be no doubt that it has achieved its goals in spades, and more progress is being made each and every day. So where is the defeat?

By some accounts, half of the African continent will die of AIDS.

From a disease that no one had heard of barely twenty years ago, we will now lose half a continent.

In Zimbabwe, it is becoming customary to hire three people for each semiskilled job, expecting two to die in training. Half the executives at some companies refuse promotions because an HIV test is required. South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia have official infection rates between 10 percent and 25 percent. Virtually all of those infected will die within 10 years. And since due to the fear of losing their jobs or being shunned, no one admits having AIDS. It is that cultural factor which leads to the rampant under-reporting of AIDS statistics, and renders the official estimates virtually meaningless. Employees often deny they are sick, refuse HIV tests and try to work until they die. The reason is as much economic as anything else: African companies typically pay up to four times annual salary to the family of a worker who dies on the job, while disability retirements are virtually nonexistent, therefore experts must guess how many of the deaths of young working people from tuberculosis, malaria and nebulous complaints like "bad chest" are really AIDS-related.

Some estimates state that more than half of the population of southern Africa is HIV-positive, and isolated pockets may exceed 80%. A well-known 1987 study in Rwanda showed that a pregnant woman had a 22 percent chance of infection if her husband was a soldier, a 32 percent chance if he was a white-collar worker and a 38 percent chance if he was a government official. Keeping in mind that not all people who engage in sexual intercourse with HIV-positives get infected, and that in the fifteen years since that study, HIV rates have likely more than doubled, it is quite possible that in some areas of Africa, the vast majority of the population is HIV-positive.

According to the World Health Organization 2,400,000 people in Africa died of AIDS in 2005. That should be compared to the world-wide total of 3,100,000. According to some estimates, more than 5,000,000 died of AIDS in Africa alone! That is yet another example of an incomplete statistic. Many people in Africa die without filing of a death certificate, and in locations either so remote or of such low income that the corpses are usually disposed of with no official notice.

Is that a notable discrepancy? Only if you calculate that it is about equal to the population of Rome. And they all died in just one year.

In the late 1980s when it was legal in Zambia to give blood tests to job applicants: eight of the 10 interviewed by Barclay’s bank in the small city of Kabwe proved HIV-positive. Meanwhile, inside the company's ranks, "young men ready for promotion were dying," with 85 percent of the deaths AIDS-related. However, it is now illegal to administer blood tests to job applicants so no-one knows who is HIV-positive or not.

Most African countries have annual health budgets of less than $6 per citizen. Zimbabwe, for example, allocated $5 per person in 2005, while the hospitalization of a privately insured AIDS patient that year cost $26,000. Faced with bankruptcy, governments respond by rationing. The $20,000-a-year protease-inhibitor "cocktails" that prolong some American lives are out of the question -- the World Bank estimates that one patient's dosage would keep 400 children in school for a year.

Most African patients get the most common malaria drugs, tuberculosis drugs and antibiotics. When their immune systems are so weak that those drugs are no longer effective in combating the opportunistic diseases that prey on the AIDS patient, they simply die.

A World Bank economist compared AIDS in Africa to the 14th century's Black Death from a cold-bloodedly financial point of view and noted that the survivors did nicely. With labor scarce, wages climbed, and "a lot of people suddenly had a lot more land." An economist at the University of Natal in South Africa noted that many African economies are shrinking, while governments are selling state enterprises and trimming public payrolls. "Being cynical about it," he said, "They think, 'If you're going to lose people anyway, do you mind how they go?"

Kinda makes ya wanna whistle the old Monty Python tune “...always look at the bright side of life...”

Continued in Part II


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