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The Global AIDS Pandemic and Jewish Responsibility

Lawrence Bush
January 1, 2004

by Ruth W. Messinger
AIDS is threatening to be the largest humanitarian crisis our planet has ever faced. As president of American Jewish World Service, I have seen close up the devastating impact this pandemic is having on individuals, communities and entire countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the disease is growing at alarmingly high rates. More than 28 million people have already died of AIDS, three million in 2003 alone. There are now 42 million people worldwide living with the virus, and it is projected that by 2020, 68 million more people will have died prematurely from AIDS — 55 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In Botswana, as just one example, there is nearly a 40% infection rate, the highest in the world, and life expectancy has dropped to 39. There have been enormous advances in treating HIV/AIDS, allowing people to live productive and long lives. Even in the U.S., however, the cost of anti-retroviral drugs remains extraordinarily high and out of reach for too many individuals. The reduced price negotiated for developing countries — about $365 per patient per year — is also unattainable for many in those poorest of countries, where the annual income can be $300 or less per year. Generic drugs can dramatically reduce the costs for developing countries, but patents and trade agreements have hindered their widespread manufacture and availability.
Recently, however, the William Jefferson Clinton Foundation has been successful in negotiating with several generic drug manufacturers to provide the drugs to four African and nine Caribbean countries for about 37 cents per patient per day. This is a tremendous achievement which must be supported and expanded.
The World Health Organization announced on December 1st, World AIDS Day, its commitment and challenge to developing nations to treat three million people by the end of 2005. This will require about $5.5 billion — but even if this extraordinary challenge can be met, three million other people will die due to lack of treatment. We must do better. Yes, the issues surrounding generic drugs, patent laws and company profits are complicated. They are also political. We cannot and must not accept any excuses for not putting this issue high on the agenda of our elected representatives. Needed drugs must be made available to all patients, whether they live in Brooklyn, New York or Harare, Zimbabwe.

As Jews we must step forward and do everything we can to save human life. As American Jews, we have the affluence and influence to change the course of the future: to prevent the deaths of three million women, men and children every year. We must not retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. We know better than most people what it means to do nothing while so many are allowed to die. You can be sure that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be asking us what we did during the years of the AIDS crisis.
So what can we do? Donations to organizations like AJWS, which currently funds 47 groups fighting HIV/AIDS in the developing world, 36 of which are in Africa, are welcome, but there are other ways to help.
Demand that your elected officials eliminate trade agreements and corporate patents that obstruct the availability of generic drugs to developing countries. Join the Jewish Coalition Responding to HIV/AIDS, which calls for the elimination of foreign debt of poor nations and expansion of funds for AIDS prevention and treatment. Support a community project in Africa or the Caribbean. Invite a speaker to educate and motivate your organization. Learn more about global AIDS and how you can help (to learn more see our website).
I hope that the next time I write a column, we will be celebrating the announcement of a cure. If not, let there be treatment for all, regardless of economic status — and let the Jews take a lead in making this happen, as a “light unto all nations.”

Ruth W. Messinger is president and executive director of American Jewish World Service, which allocates over one third of its international development and relief budget to AIDS-related activities in Africa and the developing world. She was Manhattan Borough President for eight years.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.