My Adv. Reporting class was one of three lucky enough to hit down with Pultizer Prize winner Laurie Garrett for a discussion about AIDS and a journalist's responsibility to cover the issue. I realized a few minutes into it that it would make a great story for one of our sites at work, so i took down some notes. Here's what I came up with:
Increased access to AIDS drug cocktails, additional funding for research, and decreasing infection rates among certain populations have created a false sense of safety, but the current state of the disease calls for urgent action, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Laurie Garrett.
"We are facing the largest catastrophic epidemic in the history of humanity," Garrett said today during a discussion at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "Who's in charge? Nobody. Who's got a plan? Nobody."
By the end of 2000, 36.1 million men, women and children were infected with HIV and 21.8 million had died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). The same year saw more than 5 million new infections and 3 million deaths, a record number.
In 14 countries, more than 10 percent of adults have the virus. In eight countries, one in every three adults has HIV, said Garrett, who has reported on AIDS since 1981.
In the United States, one in 10 gay or bisexual men ages 23 to 29 have HIV, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of more than 2,400 gay and bisexual men in six U.S. cities.
The study, released last month, found that gay and bisexual minorities face higher infection rates, with 30 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Latinos infected. About 7 percent of gay and bisexual white men had HIV.
In addition, only 29 percent of the 293 HIV-positive men in the study knew they were infected.
Policy makers are just beginning to realize that the “lack of strategic approach [to fighting AIDS] is shameful, embarrassing and there’s a sense of urgency,” Garrett said.
AIDS was potentially containable in the early 1980s, but the global governmental denial and lack of financial support made way for the disease to reach ever-increasing pandemic proportions, she said.
Garrett, who studied bacteriology and immunology at the University of California at Berkeley, estimates that even if researchers find a vaccine for HIV in 10 years - an unlikely occurrence - the world-wide infection rate will reach at least 150 million. A cure is even less likely, she said.
The virus hides in DNA, making it difficult and dangerous to manipulate it. "This is the first time we've tried to tackle a disease that does that," Garrett said.
Part of the blame for the growth of the virus falls on the government, Garrett said. Africa, where countries such as Botswana have a 36 percent infection rate among adults, has not received nearly as much international response as North-American or European AIDS cases, she said.
"If one in every three white French walking around Paris had AIDS, you bet the reaction would be different," she said.
Expensive drug cocktails - which can cost about $20,000 a year – can help, especially is people in third-world countries can obtain it at decreased costs, but there are dangerous side effects, Garrett said.
Fat redistribution cause women's breasts to shrink down while their stomachs enlarge. Men find themselves with a ring of fat around their waist just as their legs and arms become skinny, Garrett said.
The most detrimental effect, though, is the false sense of safety the medication creates in patients and in anyone who is sexually active, she said.
Garrett is the only journalist to win the field’s top three prizes. She took home the Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Ebola virus, the George Polk Award for her general health coverage in Newsday, and the George Foster Peabody Award for her PBS documentary, "Great Minds of Medicine."
(I adored her. She's really great. She also likened the creation of crack to a marketing campaign to increase profits in the inner city - whose residents couldn't afford powder cocaine - and she talked about how AIDS has become a billion-ollar industry. Think about it. There are people whose whole careers are based upon the existence of AIDS.)