Wednesday, June 29, 2005

AIDS and Religious bias.

One of the most potentially devastating phases of the AIDS (Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) epidemic is its spread through Muslim countries according to UNAIDS (TVNZ news). Although some countries may be resistant to efforts to combat the disease due to denial of the scope and rate of the epidemic. Surprisingly however, Iran has actually been leading the way among Muslim countries with needle exchange programmes and public education campaigns. Another Muslim country that is making great progress is also Bangladesh according to UNAIDS, but when it comes to AIDS more will also need to be done.

Interestingly, this reminds me very much of the inital situation that faced the United States government at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the late 1970s. It was marked by fierce denials from the conservative Reagan administration, which heavily stifled funding and hampered efforts to track the diseases epidemiology as a result. Add in some good old fashioned Christian bigotry with some fire and brimstone (see below for some examples) and you have a potential disaster.

Centers for disease control (CDC) scientists were often frustrated as a result and severely underfunded. Koop, C. Everett the surgeon general at the time, described the administration thusly:
"The Reagan revolution brought into positions of power and influence Americans whose politics and personal beliefs predisposed them to antipathy toward the homosexual community (1)."
This resulted in considerably reduced spending and action, which can be seen best in the response to a seperate outbreaks of other diseases:
"By that time the CDC had spent just under $1 million for some thirteen months of GRID [Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease] research. In roughly the same amount of time-or less- the CDC had spent $9 million in pursuit of the cause of death of twenty-nine Legionnaires in 1976-77; more than $1 million on Ebola hemorrhagic fever investigations in Central Africa; at least $135 million on Swine Flu investigation and vaccine development (2)."
"There is no doubt in my mind that if the disease had appeared among Americans of Norwegian descent or among tennis players, rather than gay men, the response of the government and medical community would be different," - Henry Waxman (Californian democratic party member) (3)"
"Finally, the [Democrats'] recommendations that an independant panel be created to develop a comprehensive strategy for responding to AIDs should be rejected as unnecessary." (4)"
and many on the religious right didn't make things any better (however shamful these sorts of quotes are)
"AIDS is a Judgement from God." - Reverened Billy Graham"
"AIDS is God's punishment," [Jerry Falwell] concluded. "The scripture is clear: We do reap it in our flesh when we violate the laws of God."(5) "
Even as developments progressed and it appeared that the disease had spread to those other than homosexuals, the intense bias from the religiously motivated right to the stigma of AIDS as a 'gay disease' resulted in denials and research was impeded. After the discovery of the virus that causes AIDS, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), there were still continued denials and emerging crack pot theories attempting to 'explain' the origin of the virus. For example, that vaccines caused the outbreak such as hepatitis B, smallpox, polio, or that the virus originated from influenza or more absurd still that the CIA created the virus to destroy Africa.

Most importantly, AIDS was a lesson that good science, epidemiology and more was ignored when the primary infected group was one that was generally disliked, very often for religious reasons. As the scenario in America in 1979-1985 demonstrates, religious bias at a governmental and even a social level allowed AIDS an easier time in spreading through the most susceptible populations. The governments of Muslim countries should take the American administrations previous mistake to note and not repeat them or run the risk of escalating an already progressing epidemic. In many respects, the positions of Iran and Bangladesh must be considered as a leading example to other Muslim countries.

AIDS is a terrible disease and not just one of the socially disliked or morally corrupt. It must be coordinately attacked on all levels, both through an individual level, at a societal level and at a governmental level.

1. The coming plague. Laurie Garrett. Pg. 302 (Brilliant book incidently and is a well researched read on many issues surrounding emerging diseases. Has a large and extremely depressing chapter on the initial outbreak of AIDS in America).
2. Pg. 303.
3. Pg. 303.
4. Pg. 318.
5. Pg 330.