We Must Win Fight Against Aids

November 29, 2004By Elaine Chao

On Wednesday – World AIDS Day – men and women all around the globe will renew their commitment to fighting one of the most wrenching humanitarian tragedies of our time: the HIV pandemic that is destroying the lives of 38 million people.

I saw the urgency of winning this battle firsthand during a trip to Africa. I met with valiant men and women committed to using every available means to roll back this plague in their countries. During the trip I launched projects – part of the president’s unprecedented $15 billion plan to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide – that focus on workplace education and prevention. This has proved to be an effective way to reach out to HIV victims, the vast majority of whom are employed.

THE NEED to address HIV/AIDS in the workplace is urgent. In Africa and many other countries, AIDS is dealing a heavy blow to the most productive members of society. About half of the new cases of HIV infection occur in those under age 25 – and few of these people live to see their 35th birthday. It is causing an alarming reversal of the trend toward longer life spans that we see in the developed world. Experts predict that by the end of this decade, HIV will reduce average life expectancy by 30 to 40 years in some of the nations of sub-Saharan Africa.

Without effective action, many poor countries will face not only a humanitarian crisis but an economic one, as HIV deprives them of the workforce necessary to grow their way out of poverty. That’s just one reason the United States, through the Department of Labor, supports workplace-based HIV/AIDS prevention and education. The department works with local communities to help them cope with the fear, social stigmatization and discrimination that inhibit prevention and education efforts that can prevent infection.

In the last four years, the Department of Labor has funded and obligated nearly $35 million in tailored, comprehensive workplace-based HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs. These programs address the need for behavior change and help stricken workers and their families find the care and support they need.

Some of these projects support the formation of HIV/AIDS steering committees at work sites and others have provided training for HIV/AIDS educators and peer counselors at the worksites of the largest employers in Malawi, Namibia, Haiti, India, Vietnam, Ukraine, Nigeria and the Dominican Republic. Still other projects assist governments, employers and workers in coming together to fight HIV/AIDS.

Especially noteworthy are the U.S.-funded projects that focus on teachers, a sector of the workforce hard-hit by AIDS. American-supported programs in Uganda, for example, are educating teachers about prevention behaviors as well as providing the afflicted with support and services.

IN REACHING out to these teachers, we are not only helping them to protect themselves. We are ensuring that their knowledge and awareness will be passed on to their pupils. It is a sad fact that myths and taboos about HIV/AIDS persist in all too much of the world. Teachers can be an invaluable resource in dispelling these misperceptions and spreading accurate information that can save lives.

These programs are a good example of the many different ways to approach the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The president has committed nearly every government agency to joining this worldwide campaign. It is an unprecedented effort to fight a battle that the world must win.

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