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Imagining a world without AIDS

From Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dr. Sanjay Gupta will host a special CNN Presents this weekend on AIDS.


In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.


Behind the Scenes
AIDS (Disease)

NEW YORK (CNN) -- About 8,000 people die of AIDS every day. Another 6,000 people between ages 15 and 24 contract HIV on a daily basis.

Think about that: At the end of this month, more people will have died from AIDS in April alone than were killed in the Southeast Asia tsunami that shocked the world in late 2004. And the epidemic keeps spreading. There are currently an estimated 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS across the world.

How can a disease so deadly and so rampant not make the news any more? How could it have fallen off the radar screens of news executives?

It turns out that fighting the apathy surrounding HIV/AIDS is as tricky as fighting the virus itself. And, by today's standards, the only way AIDS will really be in the headlines again is when it is cured or eradicated.

That is a difficult standard by anyone's measure, and it unfortunately belittles the real and effective gains made against AIDS.

Today, there are more than 20 drug regimens available that allow a person with AIDS to live a normal lifespan, if he or she can get treatment. The risk of heartbreaking mother-to-child transmission has been reduced significantly with simple drugs. And for the first time, thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organizations like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, many of these medications are affordable to those who need the drugs most.

President Clinton once told me, "AIDS used to be about two things nobody wanted to talk about: sex and death. While the disease still centers around sex, it is no longer just about death."

It is also true that though the disease often involves sex, it isn't sexy.

Why don't more people care about this disease? It could be that despite the extraordinarily high numbers, the vast majority of people have never been personally touched by AIDS. I came to better understand HIV/AIDS as a doctor and a journalist when I traveled the world meeting patients.

From Thailand to Kenya to Rwanda to India to the United States, the faces staring back at me were the same faces I had seen my entire life.

A soft-spoken veiled woman on the predominantly Muslim island of Zanzibar told me of her life with HIV. A struggling Kenyan mother named Nancy Ndegwa who had worked for 20 years as a prostitute miraculously never became infected, despite thousands of exposures to the virus. I spoke with young Thai teenagers who had been kicked out of their homes because of their HIV status, and I met a couple in North Carolina who can no longer afford the medications to keep them alive, unless they give up some of the necessities of life.

"My son was diagnosed several years ago as HIV positive," a user wrote. "We come from an upper-middle-class background. I look at the way AIDS has become a disease that effects all. Just as we have an obligation to support countries that are victims of genocide, so should we support the hungry and those suffering from AIDS."

All across the world and right here in our backyards, people have shared their stories with me and with CNN viewers to provide a better understanding of what it is like to live and die with the disease. Once you have met these people, you could not help but want to learn more about the disease and its many ramifications. It is probably also the reason I cried out loud when I recently read that a 15-year-old boy in Nairobi was hacked to death with a garden fork after he was diagnosed with HIV.

It has been 25 years since the world was first introduced to an AIDS patient, and now anyone born after 1980 has never known a world without AIDS.

The attitudes have changed: The general feeling among young people we interviewed was, "Sure, it's a bad disease you don't want to get, but it is treatable, and people can live with it."

Of course, that might explain a resurgence of high-risk behavior and a reluctance to get tested in the first place. Those same young people were shocked when I told them "90 percent of the people living with HIV don't even know they have it."

The simple fact is that AIDS is not going away, and we are not even close to a cure or eradication. For now, treatment and prevention are the most vital part of the fight.

Many organizations are working on many forms of prevention. We are making strides toward striking a comfortable complacency with AIDS, but I want to take it one step further.

This weekend, I will host a town hall meeting about AIDS. The discussion will take place in New York, and my guests will be former President Bill Clinton, the heads of several major pharmaceutical companies, dignitaries from around the world, the chief of MTV and actors who have shown true commitment to this issue.

I hope you will join us. "The End of AIDS: A Global Summit with President Clinton" will air at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, April 29-30.

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