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Inter Press Service

Every Day Must Be World AIDS Day


NEW YORK, Dec 13 (IPS) - A wrenching new documentary about HIV/AIDS seeks to firmly connect the numbing statistics with the faces and names of people suffering from the disease, and the men and women fighting to get them treatment with few or no resources.

"This is a story about the way the world is," the narration says. "It is a world that has allowed a deadly but preventable and treatable disease to thrive in the human family for more than 20 years, infecting or killing more than 60 million of its members."

Ultimately, "A Closer Walk" serves as a powerful condemnation of the indifference of rich countries toward the disease outside their own borders -- and in many cases, within them as well.

"What sort of people are we?" wonders U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the film. "Can we use the words compassion, humanity, dignity toward our fellow man and woman? They all become hollow."

Robert Bilheimer, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, and his crew logged 150,000 miles of travel in the course of making 'A Closer Walk', roaming from hospitals in Uganda and India to the slums of Haiti, the Ukraine and the United States.

"One of the realities is that the general public has not been part of the struggle in any way," said Bilheimer at a screening of the film hosted by the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative in New York. "They have been disengaged from any meaningful sense of what this pandemic is about."

"AIDS is going to leave a fossil-like imprint on civilisation that we can't even begin to imagine yet," he said. "This is a film that serves the purpose of reaffirming basic notions and ideals about human dignity and human rights."

The film offers a glimpse of the Tambaram AIDS clinic in Chennai, India, where the women's ward is so crowded that each bed is shared by at least two patients who rotate in 12-hour shifts.

"The future of the epidemic, as in so many other things, is in Asia," says Peter Piot, the executive director of UNAIDS.

Most of the patients at Tambaram are women who have been ostracised by their husbands and families because they are sick. None have access to medicine.

"We have no proper system to care for our HIV patients. They have to walk for miles to find someone who is interested to look after them," says N.M. Samuel, a doctor at the clinic.

In fact, less than five percent of the estimated 42 million people with AIDS globally have access to the drugs that have eased mortality rates in rich countries by 70 percent.

The new 5-billion-dollar fund to fight the virus promised by U.S. President George W. Bush to fight the virus has yet to materialise.

"The disturbing thing to me is that we're getting into a whole new generation," Bilheimer added. "These orphans are starting to come of age now, and this population is even more vulnerable to the disease than their parents were since so many are living on the street."

Some 2,000 children are born with HIV every day. Five million have died since the beginning of the epidemic.

In South Africa, 1,500 people a day are infected with the virus.

"It was so heartbreaking to see myself dying and to see my son. How do you say goodbye to your child? How do you tell him that you're dying?" says Musa Njoko, a South African AIDS activist. "If you don't have money you die. If you have money, you survive."

In Uganda, Dr. Peter Mugyenyi does his best to ease the suffering of patients at the Joint Centre for Clinical Research in Kampala. Many are tiny children, barely clinging to life.

"You see someone showing symptoms of AIDS, and you have the awesome job of sending the patient home without treatment, knowing he's going to die," Mugyenyi explains, shaking his head.

One of the film's most courageous and poised speakers is Olivia Nantongo, who was left alone at age 12 after dropping out of school to care for her HIV-positive mother.

At the request of Sandy Thurman of the International AIDS Trust, Olivia agreed to travel from her village in Uganda to the United States to address cabinet members and Vice President Dick Cheney about the harsh realities of AIDS in Africa.

"We didn't know at that time that Olivia too was HIV-positive," Thurman later recalls, choking up. "And although I was sitting in the office of the most powerful man in the world, I couldn't develop a programme that would get her the simple medications that cost 500 dollars a month to save her life."

Thurman ended up paying for Olivia's drugs out of her own pocket, but it was already too late. The 20-year-old had developed meningitis, wasted away and died within months.

However, her spirit and determination will not be forgotten.

"Make me someone," Olivia says at one point. "I've gone through all this, but I'd like to be a remarkable person."

On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, the film reached mass audiences in dozens of countries, thanks largely to a screening on the popular U.S.-based 'Oprah Winfrey Show'. But perhaps the point of 'A Closer Walk' is that every day should be 'World AIDS Day'.

"We don't know what we've lost," says international pop star and activist Bono. "And I think history is going to be incredibly hard on us."

+A Closer Walk

+International AIDS Vaccine Initiative

+Treatment Action Campaign


Copyright © 2003 -Inter Press Service, Publisher. All rights reserved to Inter Press Service. Reproduced with permission.Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Inter Press Service, IPS-ONLINE, World Desk via Panisperna 207 00184 Rome, Italy. Email IPS visit Inter Press Service.

Information in this article was accurate in December 13, 2003. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.