Miss Universe Promotes World AIDS Day
By Mike Falcon, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Amelia Vega is one of the most beautiful woman in the world. But the former Miss
Universe is less concerned with her striking looks than with striking a blow
against the ugliness of the international AIDS epidemic.
"World AIDS Day is December 1st and I'm working with the Global
Health Council and other HIV/AIDS organizations to raise awareness about the
disease and the way it is dramatically affecting women," says Vega. "In Miami's
Little Havana, we'll have a mobile clinic that will be providing free HIV testing."
Vega stresses that outreach to the Hispanic community is critically important
both here and abroad.
"Hispanic people and especially women are now at higher risk for HIV," Vega
states. "My country, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti account for about 80%
of all the HIV/AIDS cases in the Caribbean region."
And silence and shame continue to aid and abet the virus' spread.
"The problem is people are afraid to talk about AIDS in my country," Vega says.
"We need to talk about it, learn about it and begin to solve our problems through
education and changes in behavior that put people at risk. Young people are
at risk and they need good information."
While the latest CDC report discloses that the AIDS plague is still on the
increase here in the USA -- with the greatest increases occurring in the bisexual
male and Hispanic populations --the disease also continues to increase internationally.
The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health
Organization (WHO) estimate that 38.6 million adults and 3.2 million children
were living with HIV at the end of last year. According to UNAIDS' "AIDS
Epidemic Update 2003" report, five million became infected with HIV in 2003,
compared with about 4.8 million in 2002., and 3.1 million died from HIV/AIDS.
But this alarming growth is not limited to underdeveloped countries. Major
players in the global economy and former superpowers are encountering tragic
increases in HIV and AIDS.
"There are three areas where we are particularly concerned," says Nils Daulaire,
an expert in international public health and president and CEO of the Global
- India and China - "They have enormous populations, especially of
young people that are becoming more sexually active," says Daulaire, who is
also a physician. "As two of the world's most vibrant economies this has huge
consequences, not just for public health, but also economically." According
to UNAIDS, some 6 million people in South and Southeast Asia are living with
HIV/AIDS, including as estimated 750,000 infected in 2002.
- Russia and other former Soviet Union members - "These are facing
the most rapid increase in HIV infection rates that the world has ever seen,"
Daulaire notes. "We are potentially facing a humanitarian catastrophe in those
countries." According to AVERT.org, an international AIDS action group headquartered
in England and South Africa, 1.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Eastern
Europe and former Soviet Union countries is a "conservative estimate." That
includes 250,000 infected last year.
- Latin America and the Caribbean -- Echoes of the disastrous delay
in acknowledging the South African AIDS epidemic reverberate harshly here.
"Many of these governments are still denying they are having a problem," says
Daulaire, who points out that "The statistics just don't support that denial."
Nearly 2 million live with HIV/AIDS in the regions, according to AVERT.org,
and 210,000 were infected just last year.
Vega is amazed that AIDS is still often defined as a "gay" disease. Even though
the CDC report shows flat growth rates for heterosexual HIV infections domestically,
the worldwide trend in new infections is now increasingly heterosexual.
"I still hear people say that they are not worried about AIDS because they
are not gay," Vega says. "Hello?!"
And it's not just the adults who may be at risk.
"If you don't get tested and you get pregnant, then your baby is at risk too,"
So, who now gets stuck with the immediate role of eternal vigilance and proactive
prevention? Those who are often least likely and able to assert themselves:
unsuspecting, monogamous married women.
But Vega encourages women to be proactive.
"Machismo and men not wanting to wear a condom is a problem," she says. "But
this problem needs to be dealt with by women. We have to protect ourselves if
we feel our partner is not faithful or we feel unsure about the relationship."
This issue particularly affects young women. In the Caribbean nations of Trinidad
and Tobago, HIV rates are five times higher in girls than boys aged 15-19, according
AVERT.org. At a center in Jamaica for pregnant women, teenage girls have almost
twice the HIV+ prevalence of older women.
The slogan seen on the T-shirts of many AIDS activists in the USA now rings
even more true for women in developing countries: "Silence = Death."
The good fight
But where do you begin AIDS education in cultures even less willing than our
own to discuss the epidemic? Realistically, outreach begins with money. And
financial support is where for the first time in the global fight against HIV/AIDS
there are encouraging signs that the tides is turning.
"The Administration's announcement that the US was committing to a five year,
15 billion dollar plan for treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS around the world
really shook the fundamental assumptions of the global community," Daulaire
states. "It meant that there would finally be the kind of resources available
to finally make a difference."
Dramatic price drops for anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS has decreased
the cost from tens of thousands of dollars per year to around two hundred dollars
"We are now seeing the hope that treatment can be within reach of millions
of people within the next few years," Daulaire says. "And we've seen a growth
in the world's body of knowledge about what to do about AIDS. The most dramatic
part of this turning tide has been the increase in effective treatments that
transform AIDS from a death sentence to a hope for a productive life."
Daulaire also notes that these successful treatments for HIV create a ripple
effect in people's willingness to seek testing and treatment so patients are
being diagnosed and treated earlier and living longer as a result.
"That's what is notable about World AIDS Day 2003 -- we are seeing a switch
from despair to hope in the global AIDS pandemic," Daulaire says.
And Vega's hope is that she can continue to help people learn about HIV/AIDS.
"Winning Miss Universe was important to me because it provided me a way to
help raise awareness about this deadly issue," Vega says. "I am happy I can
make a contribution now because the virus is killing people. We have to educate
people because we can save lives."
And that makes Vega's universe just a little more beautiful.
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Created: 12/4/2003  - Mike Falcon & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 12/4/2003  - Donnica Moore, M.D.