An AIDS activist and an environmentalist sit together in a room, yet
only one chair is occupied. How is this possible? You could concoct any
number of theories (the AIDS activist sits on the environmentalist’s
lap; one person sits on the floor). But as with all brainteasers, the
simplest answer is typically overlooked: The AIDS activist and the
environmentalist are one and the same.
Today, the worthy causes
competing for our attention can seem endless. In an era where budgets
to address a variety of global concerns are stretched ever thinner as
resources shrink, and as the number of people around the world
suffering from a variety of ills seems to expand every day, it’s no
surprise that the battle to secure funds to address any crisis is
heating up. The resolution to any one crisis may, these days, lie in
attacking several at once. HIV/AIDS and environmental challenges may
seem worlds apart, but seeing the connections between them may provide
insight as to how to better fight them. Policymakers are starting to
catch on. The recent President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief
(PEPFAR) reauthorization bill that was passed by the House of
Representatives specified that $9 billion of the $50 billion allocated
in the bill go toward fighting tuberculosis and malaria—two diseases
that often affect HIV-positive people in the developing world.
are quickly beginning to appreciate the interconnectivity of the
world’s largest crises. For example, officials recently logged record
rates of HIV infection in Nagaland, an Indian state bordering the
cyclone-ravaged nation of Myanmar, and some HIV-positive people in
Myanmar struggled to access treatment well after the storms. Indeed,
it’s impossible to examine any one cause without understanding how
other causes affect it.
Australian researchers recently made
headlines by saying that global warming and HIV could be closely tied.
In his treatise A World Free of HIV, Daniel Tarantola, a professor of
health and human rights at the University of New South Wales, in
Sydney, argues that global warming could help boost new HIV infections
and worsen conditions for poor people already living with the virus.
change is likely to have additional effects on our vulnerability to
HIV,” writes Tarantola. “Climatologists foresee that within the next
decades, vast areas will be affected by extreme natural disasters, some
lost to rising waters and others, in Africa in particular, by expanding
The implications are many. Access to clean
water is already a treatment barrier for people with HIV in the
developing world, and global warming will exacerbate the problem.
People without access to a balanced diet or proper fluids may find that
they can’t tolerate their meds and may skip doses, which can lead to
drug resistance. Also, HIV-positive mothers with limited food sources
may be tempted to breast-feed hungry children, even if they realize the
risk of mother-to-child transmission.
Tarantola argues that the
effects of global warming will put people at greater risk for
contracting HIV, saying, “There is ample evidence that the unattended
needs of uprooted communities and widening economic disparities within
and across populations fuel vulnerability to HIV.” For example, as
resources become more limited, people are likelier to engage in sex
work to secure food and shelter for their families.
people in the U.S. aren’t immune to the effects of global warming
either. Rising gas prices are already swallowing budgets for insurance
and health care. As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, extreme weather
conditions can separate Americans from meds, care and counseling. In
the U.S. and around the world, global warming—which leads to volatile
weather, changes in crop yields and lack of potable water—will make it
more difficult to establish infrastructures for people who most need
Perhaps in an ideal world, we’d have the time and
resources to address all global health concerns, such as HIV, on a
macro level, taking a multitude of factors into account. But in our
very real world, the lesson is to try to keep a larger perspective on
how combating societal issues—poverty, gender inequality, fuel
consumption—can also play a role in beating AIDS.
learned from [fighting] HIV have given rise to a new understanding of
public health where it makes no sense to oppose a public health
approach to HIV [in lieu of] a human rights approach: They are strongly
bound to each other and both aim at achieving greater justice, greater
well-being and dignity,” Tarantola writes. “The synergy between health,
development and human rights needs to inform international development
policies and programs.” Now, there’s a bright idea.