HIV / AIDS in Society

Twenty-five years after having first been discovered as a lethal and incurable disease, HIV / AIDS continues to be a world-wide health crisis (Furniss, 2006). This incurable, fast spreading, sexually transmitted disease remains the nemesis of scientists, physicians, and the millions around the world who are afflicted with HIV / AIDS. There are numerous theories and myths that have sprung up around the disease; many of them associated with doomsday philosophies or Biblical plagues. The fact is, this is human retrovirus that has evaded scientific resolution because of its ability to rapidly mutate as an evasive maneuver to treatments or remedies. "Retroviruses are not thoroughbreds. When two or more infect the same cell, they often mix their proteins and sometimes even their genes in several different ways. They may also mutate by making erroneous substitutions of some of their own nucleotides, partly due to mistakes made by the enzyme RT during DNA synthesis (Gallo, R., 1991)." Whether individual understanding or conviction of the cause or nature of the disease rests with faith or science is not the question here. The question is, in a world where more than a million people are currently estimated to be afflicted with the virus, how does society respond to the disease and to the needs of the people who suffer from it?

From the sociologist's perspective, setting aside the myths and moral judgments allows us to move forward in dealing with the problems of human affliction in the best way possible. In the early years of AIDS, Susan "Sontag urged that, once the malady came to be understood medically and had become treatable, we should dismiss the dangerous metaphors then stigmatizing its sufferers and open the way for a tolerant climate of care and caring (Alcabes, P., 2006)." In the United States, progress has been in that direction, however there is much more road to be traveled on the journey to the place that Sontag suggested we needed to be in order to rest in a climate of care and caring. In the United States, what was once epidemic has ceased to be as far as HIV / AIDS goes, because people responded to precautions and preventions, and even treatments; however that was a long way being achieved in terms of loss.

In still other places around the world, particularly in Africa, the journey to that climate of care and caring, and certainly a climate where the disease is halted if not by cure at least by prevention and precaution is a road barely begun to be traveled down. In many African nations where there rage civil wars and conflicts, HIV / AIDS is not the first priority of the government or the insurgents, but it does serve their purpose. "AIDS in Africa is different from AIDS in the West; in Africa it is an heterosexual, not homosexual, epidemic (Bond, G.C., Kreniske, J., Susser, I., and Vincent, J., 1997)." This is to say that whereas the disease afflicted the homosexual population on a large scale in the beginning of the Western epidemic, it then quickly spread to the heterosexual community, and the statistics became blurred and combined as to sexual preference. Whereas, in Africa, the epidemic was never identified in terms of sexual preference, just that it was epidemic in proportion.

The disease spread rapidly in Africa than in the West in terms of proportions in epidemic perhaps because "Africans are promiscuous; African sexuality is a risk behavior (Bond et al., 1997)." The risk groups include truck drivers, bureaucrats, prostitutes, and businessmen (Bond et al., 1997). While these same "risk" groups can be credited with having contributed to the spread in the West, there are traditional and cultural differences between the West and African nations that facilitated the spread of the disease with little or no consideration of the risk of sexual promiscuity. In other words, where the West adjusted their sexual behavior in ways conforming with the risk represented by the disease, this did not immediately occur in African nations as the disease began spreading in those nations.

In other third world communities, such as exist in South America; the spread of HIV/'AIDS has renewed the epidemic in the United States among the Hispanic community because it flows across the border, virtually unhindered in the flow of illegal aliens and migrant farm workers into the United States (Conner, R., Magana, R., and Mishra, S., 1996). This has brought the epidemic of the South American countries to the door of the United States in a very real and large way.

The suggestion here is that while the various geographical governments are charged with dealing with the health crisis that is HIV / AIDS, those geographical distinctions do not prevent other locales from having to address the issue or be concerned with the epidemic elsewhere in the world. HIV / AIDS is a world problem, one which has brought together social scientists, physicians, and researchers in symposium from the onset of the epidemic. As is the case with the United States and some European nations, just because the problem has been addressed and contained at some level in one locale, does not mean that any one nation can put off the responsibility of dealing with the problem onto another.

In studying the epidemic that is HIV / AIDS from a sociological perspective, researchers categorize the epidemic in three phases (Levitt, M., Rosenthal, D., 1999). The first phase, or "wave," was in 1981, at the onset of the identification of the disease as a new "plague (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999)." The disease might have been contained sooner, but for some misimpressions, misinformation, and misguided intentions (Gallo, R., 1991). Initially deemed a "gay" disease, there was little preparation for or reaction to the disease as regarded the heterosexual community (Levitt & Rosentahl, 1999). Thus, it quickly spread, and the rest, as we say, is history.

The second phase, or "wave," is identified to have come about around 1986, when the governments of America and other Western and European nations acknowledged HIV / AIDS as something that was not just a sexually transmitted disease, it was an epidemic and required government initiatives in the area of prevention, precaution, information, and treatment (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999).

However, acknowledging the need for intervention is a far cry from taking the initiative and putting it into action. In America, the government of former President Ronald Reagan was slow to acknowledge the disease and America's responsibility for it at a governmental level (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999). The disease spread throughout Africa, South America, the Middle East, the far East, and European; no spot on the globe where there is a human population has been untouched by HIV / AIDS.

It was during this second phase - perhaps the longest phase of the disease - that when the governments around the world finally began acting on the initiatives, the death toll from the disease was, in the United States alone, well over 400,000 people (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999). But what the second phase of the disease saw was a growth of outreach and grassroots organizations aimed at educating communities on prevention, precautions, and especially at dispelling the myth that HIV / AIDS was a disease of sexual preference, and that certain sectors of society might be immune from the disease. Indeed, by the second phase there was little to support the myths surrounding the disease since it has presented on a widespread basis in the heterosexual community.

In the United States, the focus was twofold; mourning the loss of friends, lovers and relatives who had been claimed by the disease. Many of the dead, their lives cut short, had contributed much to the world through the arts, law, community service, and as parents and loved ones. In any society, loss of loved ones or significant people in the society leaves a void; and many filled the void left by those hundreds of thousands through philanthropic efforts, scientific research, and participating in community awareness programs. By the end of President Ronald Reagan's second term in office, he had finally acknowledged HIV / AIDS as an epidemic, and the slow wheels of the government began to turn towards funding research and treatment of those people suffering from the disease (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999).

As the 1980s drew to a close, the socially constructed image of the disease - shaped as it had been initially by fear of those infected - was being softened by ribbons and the creation of a giant national quilt with one square representing one life lost to AIDS (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999). What the quilt revealed for those who refused to believed otherwise, was that the disease was indiscriminate, taking the wealthy, the influential, as well as the impoverished and lesser known. "Equally important, the epidemiology of the disease changed sufficient after 1989 to diffuse the gay image with which it had been strongly associated from the start (Levitt & Rosenthal, 1999)."

One of the losses…