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Deploying Our Forces

By José M. Zuniga

October 2001

Through acts large and small, scores of people rallied to help in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Within hours of the tragedy, tens of thousands of Americans formed lines outside of hospitals and blood bank centers nationwide to donate blood. Candle-lighting ceremonies and interfaith vigils took place across the country. And, worldwide, similar acts of solidarity inspired hope for a world united against barbarism.

Many media accounts have praised the work of heroes -- firefighters, police officers, medical professionals, and laypeople -- who responded through their courageous efforts. I am proud that among those medical professionals were several New York members of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC) who must now recover from the emotional toll of this national tragedy and continue their life-saving and life-enhancing work in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

Days after the attacks, I was asked by a friend whether I was surprised that men and women can place such extraordinary value on human life that they risk their own lives in rescue efforts. Based on years of observing medical professionals give of themselves to their patients and their patients' causes, I am not at all surprised. Even before HIV/AIDS, medical professionals have long joined the ranks of those willing to sacrifice so much for the well-being of others. I hope that Americans and, indeed, people worldwide will stop to consider the silent heroism that surrounds each of us as we endure the pain, anxiety, and anger that envelops us in the aftermath of this tragedy as well as in the unfolding of retaliatory events to come.

Among the many concerns for those of us in the social justice movement is diminished attention to issues outside of terrorism. While so many of us strongly support actions to curb terrorism, the fact remains that 2 billion people continue to subsist on less than US$2 a day; 4 billion people are living without basic sanitation; and 37 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. These are but a smattering of statistics that come to mind as I consider the state of our world. As many of my colleagues have rightly asked, how do we retain a focus on these equally serious issues affecting so many vulnerable people on the globe as the world's leaders are engaged in crafting a response to terrorism?

I do not have an immediate answer to this question. However, it is clear that we can ill-afford to disrupt our important work. As convenient as it may be for us all to postpone our events -- and IAPAC has itself postponed two events in the hours following the disaster -- we must resist cowering any further. US President George W. Bush and other world leaders have called on us all -- individuals and institutions -- to continue with our lives and work. Thus, just as so many are doing in response to the threat of terrorism, we must mobilize and deploy our forces to defend ourselves against the biological terrorism represented by the human immunodeficiency virus.

HIV is attacking our world at every opportunity. Beijing recently sounded an alarm about its epidemic -- so long shrouded in secrecy. "Like many other countries, we are also facing a very serious epidemic of HIV/AIDS," Chinese Deputy Health Minister Yin Dakui said in a recent 90-minute news conference. And, in the United States, HIV has re-grouped and reversed welcome decreases in AIDS cases and deaths celebrated in recent years. Yet another worrisome finding recently announced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a rise in reported high-risk sexual behavior, especially among young gay men. While prevention experts are quick to point out that these data are positively balanced by an 84 percent decrease in the incidence of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the alarm we should all be feeling is no less urgent.

In closing this Report from the President for October 2001, I wish to communicate two important messages: To IAPAC members who directly or indirectly suffered injury or loss in this tragic time, I offer IAPAC's deepest sympathy and heartfelt prayers. And, to our brothers and sisters in the chain of human concern, I offer an expression of solidarity that we may together overcome the common foes of violence, poverty, disease, and social isolation that threaten the fabric of our existence.

José M. Zuniga is President of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care and Editor of IAPAC Monthly.

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