Friday, August 22, 2008

Basic Instinct

As you know, I recently spent a week with 23,000 people who are working to end the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

We certainly didn't all agree on how to do that. I had one man from Nigeria come to the booth I was staffing and complain about having to talk about condoms. He wanted to teach abstinence and monogamy only, since, as he said, "I am a monogamous man. I know it works!"

And, of course, he's right. Abstinence is the one, surefire way of preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Assuming, of course, that you CAN be abstinent--that you aren't raped or forced into selling yourself to keep yourself alive.

Assuming, of course, that your partner is monogamous---which, I'm told by those who live and work there, is not the norm in sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS pandemic is the worst and is being driven by heterosexual males who have 2-5 concurrent sexual partners. (This, according to the epidemiologists with whom I spoke, is THE recipe for the rampant spread of AIDS---networks of long-term, overlapping sexual partners.)

Assuming, of course, that your mother wasn't HIV-positive when you were born or that AZT or nevirapine were available when she was in labor if she was.

Assuming that your HIV infection didn't come from a dirty needle or a bad blood transfusion.

So many assumptions...

So much "If you were only like me, everything would be all right!"

So many deaths. (Nearly 7,000 a day, now)

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In case it has escaped your notice, I am in a sober mood. The atmosphere at the conference was one of resignation. We are in this for the long haul. There will be no magic bullets to stop the spread of HIV. We must return to the basics--lab research and prevention programs.

It is so very human to forget the basics. The basics are not "sexy" or flashy. They don't make the evening news. They often involve tedium and repetition. Repeat the experiment to see if you achieve the same result. Repeat after me: "Use a new condom each and every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse and a clean needle each time you shoot up."

Wash, rinse, repeat.

Next year, unless something dramatic happens with the basics, 53,000 Americans, and over 2 million others around the world, will be newly infected with HIV. Out of every five infected individuals, only 2 will receive treatment. The rest---most of them young adults in their prime working and childbearing/rearing years---will die.

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Thinking about the importance of the basics for public health got me to thinking of their importance in the life of faith:

  • "Our Father, who art in heaven..."

  • "We believe in one God..."

  • "This is the body of Christ, given for you..."

  • "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."

Two-thousand-year-old prayers. Repeated so many times they should have worn completely away by now. Beloved and familiar words. Bread. Wine. Love in action.

They are not flashy. They are the basics. They--not covenants or canons--are the foundation of our life as a community of faith.

The basics--prevention, research, our common prayers, our compassion for others in the service of God--are what will save us.

If we let them.