“AIDS is preventable,” Stephen Lewis said as he took the stage in front of a packed Villanova Room on Nov. 15. “Apathy is lethal.”
The audience fell silent as Lewis began to document the horrific reality of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa and around the world. Sponsored by the College of Nursing, this highly-anticipated lecture marked the first visit from Lewis, who, since 2001, has served under UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as the special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.
As special envoy, Lewis has traveled all over the world and has spent extensive time in Africa working with communities and learning about the state of HIV/AIDS pandemic. According to Lewis, Africa is indeed the “appalling epicenter,” but the pandemic is in no way restricted to one place. India, he noted, has recently surpassed South Africa as the country with the single highest number of infections in the world, with over six million cases.
In Russia, occurrences of infection are rising more dramatically than anywhere else in the world.
Lewis spoke of the time he spent in Africa as “absorbing the excruciating pain and suffering of that magnificent continent.”
“You feel like you’re walking through a graveyard rather than a country,” Lewis said. “The sense of death everywhere, the despair … the desperate struggle for life is overwhelming.”
But within the devastation, death and despair, Lewis also saw an unlimited opportunity for hope, progress and change.
Lewis used his experiences in the pediatric ward of an African hospital to illustrate the helplessness AIDS victims often feel.
“Every 10 minutes of the 40 minutes I spent in that ward, another child died, and another mother wept,” Lewis said. “We have resources. Why aren’t we doing something?”
There is hope in the organizations and people out there who are doing something, Lewis said. He spoke in particular about the emergence and mobilization of treatment, especially through the vision of the World Health Organization and former President Bill Clinton, who has been negotiating for the use of low-priced generic drugs.
According to Lewis, the most painful reality of the AIDS pandemic is its effect on children. Only 5 percent of over two million children infected with this disease receive treatment, and there are still no drugs designed specifically for them.
The disparity between treatment for American and African children is glaring because the United States can offer more resources and treatment opportunities than Africa can, Lewis said.
But what else keeps this pandemic so alive? According to Lewis, the most intractable issue that has emerged from HIV/AIDS concerns women.
Lewis said that the current social roles of men and women are significantly contributing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“This virus is driven by gender inequality,” Lewis said. “Women’s lack of sexual autonomy and predatory male sexual behavior combine to aggravate the state of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
Another major point Lewis hit on in his speech was the negligence of more highly-developed nations.
These nations, he said, have made endless promises, but nothing has come of them.
Ultimately, he said, it comes down to the public. If politicians and governments won’t respond, it is up to the people of the Western world to push for change.
Lewis pointed to the willingness of young people to get involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS as a crucial step toward improvement.
Lewis illustrated the countless ways to get involved, including outlets such as Catholic Relief Services and the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
In March 2003, Lewis established the Stephen Lewis Foundation to ease the pain of individuals, families and communities struggling with HIV/AIDS in Africa. The main goal of the program is to provide assistance to those most in need by putting money directly in the hands of communities and front-line organizations.