The Silent Tsunami

December 1, 2005

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In this year of natural disasters, a great deal of attention has been placed on the tsunami in Asia, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita here in the United States, and most recently, the earthquake in Pakistan. These events, charged with emotion and filled with unforgettably horrific images, captured our hearts and minds. More importantly, they challenged us to think about how we can help those impacted and affected - those whose lives changed forever in a single day.

However, another emergency is claiming 8,000 lives around the world every day. More than two decades into the epidemic, HIV/AIDS is our silent tsunami.

Today is World AIDS Day. This is a day to remember those that we have lost to this devastating disease, and a day when we think about the many people whose lives were impacted by HIV/AIDS. This is a day that we use as a call to action.

Each day, 14,000 people are newly infected with HIV. More than 40 million people are living with HIV - a staggering 95% of them live developing countries. It is the number one killer of people aged 15-49 in the world, and increasingly impacting women. While we have prevention methods that we know will work, and effective treatment is available, more often than not it fails to reach those who need it most.

My organization, Mercy Corps, partners with communities in the midst of extreme economic or social transformation, and countries in transition from war or natural disaster. HIV/AIDS presents an increasing challenge in these environments, and it is critical that we respond appropriately to HIV/AIDS - not only as a health issue, but also as a development issue.

Mercy Corps' HIV/AIDS interventions have ranged from working with war-affected youth in Liberia, to supporting people living with HIV/AIDS in Uzbekistan, to increasing access to needed health services for indigenous populations in remote rural areas in Guatemala. In each program we seek to combat stigma and deliver hope. By intervening in key areas, engaging with national coordinated responses, listening to the needs of our communities and leveraging our connections in local communities, we can win allies and form decisive strategies in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

The long-term development focus is critical. While HIV/AIDS presents an enormous and immediate crisis today, it also promises to be with us for decades to come. Looking to the future, it is clear that HIV/AIDS simply cannot be treated solely as a health issue. Poverty, social exclusion and gender issues all drive the spread of the pandemic; these concerns must be addressed in any truly effective approach to combat HIV/AIDS.

To be effective, HIV/AIDS interventions must be inclusive, coordinated, community-owned and multi-sectoral. In particular, we must actively combat stigma, which alienates people living with the virus and undermines efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS. In addition, responses must be infused with hope, empower communities to build on their successes and encourage individuals to become agents of change themselves.

While Mercy Corps tailors its responses to meet the unique circumstances of each country, in all settings we believe that enduring change comes when people take charge of their own futures and plot a course for change in their own communities - whether communities are recovering from a natural disaster or trying to escape from the lethal wrath of HIV/AIDS.

The theme of this World AIDS Day is "Stop AIDS. Keep the Promise." It is a call to action for governments and donors to fulfill their commitments to combat this disease. But it is also a commitment to the communities we serve every day. By responding to HIV/AIDS as a challenge that asks us to be more compassionate, more inclusive and more visionary, we're promising communities to help them build bridges to a better, brighter future.

Jessica Quarles is Mercy Corps' HIV/AIDS program officer. Read about her trip to Liberia in October 2005.