Posted by: Lauren--NY | November 21, 2009

Africa is Our Own: Dr. Nathan Wolfe & GVFI

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
~Martin Niemöller

When I was a college student, I had the privilege of attending various free events that supported causes I believed in, many of which did not “involve” me directly as a white, straight, Protestant: LGBT rights awareness, racial harmony, Holocaust remembrances. Each time, I was truly disheartened to notice that I was usually the only person in the room who did not fit into the group being discussed. My disappointment was usually met with confusion by the people being represented; they considered me extremely naive to think a straight person would show up to a LGBT event, or a gentile to Holocaust Remembrance Day, or that a white girl would take a class on Africa.

In the United States, we are constantly hearing the phrase, “take care of our own.” In times of war when civilian casualties are unavoidable, certainly, this is often necessary. However, recent studies have shown us that in general practice, it doesn’t work. Mother Nature–or God, or Allah, or Hashem, or somebody–ensures that it doesn’t work. It isn’t a bleeding heart agenda that compels me to ask people to think about those who are half a world away; it’s not just compassion–it’s common sense. Interdependent race that we are, a species of international dependence and international travel, no force of any kind remains half a world away. HIV/AIDS certainly didn’t, and that’s why Dr. Nathan Wolfe does the work that he does, and that’s why he’s an extraordinary man.

I first heard about Dr. Wolfe as most others did, because of his involvement with CNN‘s Planet in Peril 2: Battle Lines, which aired last December. Dr. Wolfe is a virus hunter. He was interviewed in the jungles of Cameroon by CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, where he explained the work he is doing studying zoonotics, or viruses that are transmitted from animals to humans. HIV is a zoonotic, and resulted from starving individuals in Africa–and scientists are almost positive that the transmission occurred in Cameroon–forced into the woods to hunt and kill simians, or “bush meat,” to survive. Eventually it spread globally and created the AIDS pandemic, killing plenty of our own. There are more zoonotic viruses lurking in African primates, and conditions in many parts of Africa have not improved–in Cameroon, many still survive on bush meat. Since it is so often said that if we do not learn from our mistakes, we’re doomed to repeat them, when will the next pandemic occur? Dr. Wolfe has taken it upon himself to head the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, and attempt to answer that question.

No one can or should deny the impact that HIV/AIDS has had on the West. The intense effect it’s had on the gay community, their national identity and their perceived role in our society is staggering on its own. Of course, that is hardly the extent of it–AIDS can hardly be considered a “gay disease,” as the fastest rising at-risk group for HIV infection is heterosexual women. The crisis continues to rage in the United States despite declining media attention–2009 studies concluded that the percentage of the population of Washington D.C. that are infected with HIV/AIDS rivals that of Uganda. We are not so different, so superior. Clearly, it’s not just a moral compulsion that should make us want to care about what happens to Africa; it’s that if we don’t, it will come back to bite us in full force. That’s the way it should be. If you pay attention, it’s astonishing how often compassion goes hand-in-hand with pragmatism.

One of the most poignant examples for me of how this crisis is as close to home as any other, is the story behind the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and the deaths of Elizabeth and Ariel Glaser. In 1981, Elizabeth Glaser–the late wife of actor/director Paul Michael Glaser–contracted HIV from a blood transfusion while giving birth to their daughter, Ariel. By the time she learned of her infection, she had transferred the virus to Ariel through breastfeeding, and had another child, Jake, who contracted the virus in utero, before his birth in 1984. Ariel died in 1988 at the age of seven. In her grief, and in her desperate need to protect her son, Elizabeth founded EGPAF that same year. She revolutionized the public’s perception of pediatric AIDS and HIV/AIDS in general, inspired research and raised funding. Elizabeth Glaser died in 1994. She was 47.

It doesn’t get much more white-bread, apple-pie loving America than the Glaser family. Yet it was a pattern of poverty and disease half a world away that resulted in their deaths.

I’m not blaming the West entirely for Africa’s problems. However, if we adopt the attitude that a failure of such a magnitude is a human failure and not just an African failure, that paradigm shift could change the global patterns of disease, hunger, and prejudice. So many Western lives would be different if people in Cameroon that most in the Western world never consider hadn’t been starving, if they hadn’t been forced to eat bush meat, if that virus hadn’t become what it is. If we can take advantage of this connection and make it more positive, instead of making the same mistake twice, who knows what we can achieve. I think if we really want to make this generation count and make our greatest investment into the future, Africa is really the golden key. It’s such a beautiful, diverse continent that is so bountiful with resources, but there is so much work to be done. I think Westerners really need to take more of an interest in that continent’s potential, because so many people just see it as this big ball of strife that can’t be fixed, but it isn’t true.

We were told to “take care of our own.” It didn’t work. Ariel Glaser died. Elizabeth Glaser died. We need to try a different tactic.

Also, might I suggest that Africa is our own? For me, it’s enough that people die elsewhere. I never bought into the idea that children are worth less because they’re born on a different rock. That said, I understand that it’s difficult for people to wrap their brains around their own struggle, let alone those on another continent that never directly affect them. So I’m not judgmental if it isn’t enough for you that people are suffering in far off lands–I’m here to remind you that Ariel Glaser could have been your kid.

If AIDS didn’t happen to land in your backyard, I’m happy for you. But the next pandemic might. The universe already responded to our callousness with a massive, international crisis that changed us forever–a massive, international hint. Let’s not miss it.

You can follow Dr. Nathan Wolfe on Twitter @virushunter.

For more information on how you can help, here is a list of excellent sources:
Global Viral Forecasting Initiative
Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières)
*Condition Critical – run by Doctors without Borders, it is the single best web-based resource I have found for voices from the war in Eastern Congo. In DRC, where rape is a weapon of war, HIV/AIDS takes on a whole new meaning.
Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Keep A Child Alive
International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care

If I’ve missed any of your favorites, feel free to put them in the comments.

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The Grotto Blog by Lauren E. Moccio is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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  1. […] like Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT-UP, delivered a serious ass-kicking to the AIDS crisis, and we still owe them for that. They adopt children when their straight biological parents can’t take care of them, and give […]

  2. […] 609,000 homeless–because of all the poverty and strife here at home. I hear that. However, again I have to urge people to not only remember that we are a global community, but to also remember the outpouring of love and support we received in the wake of the 9/11 […]

  3. Thank you both! Happy Thanksgiving if you’re in the States. 🙂

  4. Interesting affair, didn’t thought reading this was going to be so awesome when I looked at your link.

  5. interesting…

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