Do The Freakin Math

Liberals and conservatives alike frequently rely on limited evidence, personal experience, religious beliefs or gut emotions to determine solutions for complex problems. From immigration to global warming - taxes to terrorism - or health care to free trade - analytical study is rare. Science based policy making isn’t the way of Washington. And the consequences are catastrophic. Change is urgently needed. Just do the freakin’ math.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Hunger and HIV/AIDS:

On AIDS Day this December 1st we heard both good news and bad. AIDS infections were fewer than originally predicted but our global effort to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine had failed -- again. What we didn’t hear was any news about the link between hunger and this perfectly murderous RNA based virus -- HIV. That’s a shame. Because the links between hunger and HIV/AIDS are profound.

The latest scientific thinking (conspiracy theories excluded) pegs the HIV virus originating in the primates of Africa and moving into the Human population sometime in the early to late 1940s. Then, for nearly 40 years it was ignored as it migrated down the Kinshasa Hi-way and traveled effortlessly to all four corners of our remarkably interconnected world. No one spotted it because those who fell victim appeared to be dying from hunger. Their deaths were attributed to the so called “Slims disease”. Skinny Africans dying from some ‘hunger’ disease simply didn’t draw much attention. Recently, an evolutionary biologist was able to trace our first domestic AIDS infections back to the early 1970s from a single Haitian entering the US though Miami. Few then were interested in the living conditions in Haiti. It wasn’t until the early 1980’s in the San Francisco ‘gay’ bath houses that HIV became painfully obvious to the American people. And, even then, it was only of interest to those who had special interests in medicine or sexual deviancy. Few people or policy makers consider what our world would be like today if we had been more interested in those African people dying of hunger decades earlier. Or, the health concerns of Haitians who inhabit the most impoverished and destitute place in our Hemisphere.

I learned of the terror of HIV/AIDS early and up close. My wife Laura and I were living in the San Francisco Bay area working for the Hunger Project and expecting our first child. Tauna’s birth in a San Francisco hospital in November of 1983 was the happiest day of my life. Months later that event was the source of the most frightening day of our lives. Laura had received a blood transfusion during the birthing process. Suddenly our survival was linked to the lives of the poorest people in the most remotest rainforest in Africa. My wife was far luckier than the women who became prostitutes in hopes of earning enough to feed their children. Their work helped speed the virus down every African road that any infected truck driver would take. And, those infected led all the way to the Bay Area.

Today, while most are concerned about Al Qaeda or global warming, one of the most evil and devastating alliances continues to expand. It is estimated that one out of every three people who die of HIV/AIDS actually die from TB. The compromised immune system is no match for even a weak strain of TB, never mind the drug resistant, multi-drug resistant and extremely drug resistant strains of TB that we have among us today… mostly in the poorest populations but also now making its début even in the upper classes. And too few seem to care that TB spreads easiest in immune systems compromised by malnutrition. We have cheap drugs that can fight the regular forms of TB believed to be in one out of every three people in the world. But good nutrition remains the best natural defense against TB.

The most terrorizing fact however is the continuing hyper evolution of the HIV genetic material. RNA based viruses are far less stable than DNA based. It is estimate that HIV has a 1% mutation rate. The average untreated HIV infected person has approximately 2 billion replications of the HIV virus in their bodies EACH DAY. If you do the math…that comes out to roughly 2 0 million possible variations of the HIV virus per day…per infected untreated person. One of the other frightening traits of pathogens is their ability to swap genetic segments with completely different viruses. (Regular E.coli became deadly E.Coli 0157 after it received the deadly Shigella bacterial gene segment #0157. Sometimes we speed this process with intentional biological experiments (working to create an AIDS vaccine by combining segments of HIV with the common Cold virus) or accidental biological experiments (mutinogenic toxins in the environment or the improper use of antiviral medicines during well meaning treatments). There is no shortage of examples of links between environmental degradation and hunger…or hunger and illiteracy. And, there is HIV linked every day and in every way.

Last but not least, everyone knows that war leads to hunger and the rapid spread of infectious diseases. Unfortunately, we must continually be reminded that hunger and the insecurity of poverty related diseases can contribute to exacerbating conflicts. It is now in the Horn of Africa where US Marines are more likely to be drilling water wells, building schools or irrigation projects than they are to be hunting or killing terrorists. The U.S. military knows full well from its failings in Iraq that the best way to fight terrorism is to win the hearts and minds of the locals. Their work in Africa’s poorest regions is to establish a friendly environment where Al Qaeda will not grow. Even Jarheads know that winning hearts and minds first requires a full stomach.

AIDS, like Al Qaida, spreads best in ignorance and chaos. And where ever there is hunger… we will also find ignorance and chaos.

A few years after 9-11 Colin Powel said AIDS was a greater threat to national security than Al Qaida. Recently Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called for our government to commit more money and effort to “soft power” tools, including diplomacy, economic assistance and communications, because the military alone cannot defend America’s interests around the world.

World hunger won’t be solved until a super majority of US policy makers hunger enough for justice, wisdom, peace, sanity and lasting security. HIV/AIDS is only the most recent window through which to view the continuing holocaust of our times…world hunger…in a world of plenty.

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