More than 10 million orphans. It took a while for the headline in Newsweek magazine to sink in. More than 10 million African children have lost one or both parents because of the AIDS plague. "A full-blown crisis is upon us, and it's worse than expected," reported Newsweek. "By the end of this year an astonishing 10.4 million African children under 15 will have lost their mothers or both parents to AIDS-90 percent of the global total of AIDS orphans" (Jan. 17, 2000, p. 12).
Now, as the year draws to a close, estimates of the number of AIDS orphans run as high as 13.5 million. They are expected to grow to a staggering 44 million over the next decade-children who have grown up with virtually no social structure, guaranteeing a future wave of lawlessness and chaos in already devastated countries. In some countries fully half of teenagers and young adults are infected and will die of the disease.
In any other part of the world the news would be scandalous, but in Africa, a continent largely disconnected from the rest of the planet, AIDS is still mostly a silent epidemic. The cover of the Sept. 9 issue of World said, simply and starkly, "AIDS: Africa Is Dying Slowly."
At least it has been finally recognized for what it is-a worldwide plague. The facts are slowly sinking in about how terrible and widespread this plague has become. It has already killed close to half a million Americans, almost 10 times the number who died in the Vietnam War. No nation is immune. China and India, where the epidemic is just beginning to break out, together already have more than seven million cases.
According to figures from the United Nations, with each passing minute 11 persons become infected with the AIDS virus, or 16,000 a day. This totals an appalling 5.6 million people stricken with the plague last year. The number of people who have AIDS worldwide is around 35 million. More than 23 million are infected in Africa alone (compared with 1.5 million in the United States).
How many have died from AIDS? A million? Five million? Ten million? No, it is far worse. UNAIDS, an umbrella group for United Nations agencies, estimates the figure at 19 million. Nearly four million of them have been children under age 15.
In 1999, 2.6 million died of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is equivalent to the population of Jamaica. Perhaps because two million of those died in Africa (total AIDS deaths in Africa so far total 13.7 million), the wails of grief are seldom heard beyond the villages of the dead. Yet they are all people made in God's image, but whose dreams and aspirations have been shattered in slow, lingering deaths.
The figures have grown to such astronomical proportions that they are finally causing worldwide alarm. "The spread of this disease," said U.S. ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, "could not be contained in Africa, and the destruction of Africa from AIDS will not be limited to the continent. If we don't work with the Africans themselves to address these problems ... we will have to deal with them later when they will get more dangerous and more expensive."
Factors that cause AIDS to spread
Why has the AIDS virus been particularly virulent in Africa? In Africa AIDS is primarily a heterosexual disease. Much of the spread is because of social structures and instability. Many migrant men leave their rural homes and spend months working in mines, on construction projects or at jobs in the cities. While away from home, many visit prostitutes, of whom up to 90 percent in some areas carry the virus (in some cities, up to 50 percent of the population has AIDS). After becoming infected the men carry the virus back to their wives and others in their home villages.
Civil unrest and war have also played a part. Widespread numbers of rapes committed in some of Africa's 14 ongoing military conflicts have also spread the disease. Even UN and regional peacekeeping troops have contributed to the problem, fathering illegitimate children and contracting the infection, which they carry to their own homelands and homes.
Cultural factors play a role. In some areas the superstition has spread that the best way for an HIV-infected man to be cured is to have sexual relations with a virgin.
Politically correct reporting ignores causes
The caution with which some of the Western news media deal with the AIDS epidemic is mostly because of the political issues involved. Prostitution, promiscuity and homosexuality are all major causes for the spread of AIDS but are considered "politically incorrect" subjects by many journalists. In a world where sexual morals are being increasingly relaxed, it is difficult for the news media to deal with the main culprit of the AIDS outbreak-the break-ing of the seventh of the Ten Commandments: "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14).
It's revealing to note that, as one insightful Newsweek reader later commented about the special edition dedicated to AIDS mentioned earlier: "In 14 pages of text, the words 'casual sex' or 'promiscuity' were not mentioned once, even though this is the direct or indirect cause of 98 percent of all new infections in Africa. Nor was the fact that HIV is a sexually transmitted infection alluded to."
To be sure, many in Africa are innocent victims. Tainted blood used in transfusions is one cause. Lack of sterilization in hospitals and clinics contributes to its spread. Mates unknowingly contract AIDS from a spouse who is a carrier. Then there are the children who inherit it from birth from infected mothers.
A warning from God
God has repeatedly warned mankind in the past that He will not tolerate rampant sexual immorality forever. We read that He turned "the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly ..." (2 Peter 2:6, emphasis added throughout).
God's prophesied intervention in world affairs is linked in Daniel 8 to growing degeneracy and an increase in ungodly practices and lifestyles, of which the AIDS plague is both a symptom and a part. It is prophesied: "And in the latter time of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their fullness, a king shall arise ... against the Prince of princes [at Christ's second coming]; but he shall be broken without human means" (verses 23-25).
Like the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, it seems sin has to rise to a certain level in our time before God decides to initiate the prophesied intervention of His Kingdom.
A past plague
So far the death toll from AIDS has not equaled that of plagues in the past. The 1918 influenza virus was estimated to have killed more than 20 million people. It spread quickly and then died out. But a real plague is known for its lasting deadliness. So far the AIDS epidemic has lasted some 20 years.
There are no known cures for AIDS. Expensive and powerful drugs can hold it somewhat in check-albeit with unpleasant side effects-but not eliminate it. Enormous efforts and resources have been directed at finding a cure, and some scientists believe they are on the right track to a lasting solution. This would be good news, for no one wants AIDS to continue, and there are too many innocent victims.
Fear of contracting HIV has slowed the rampant immorality in some countries. One wonders if a cure for AIDS would free people from their fears and actually lead to increased promiscuity. Other sexually transmissible diseases continue to multiply in spite of their devastating consequences.
Long-term solution to AIDS
The long-term solution to the AIDS problem includes more than eliminating the virus. People must choose to stop the sexual misconduct that spreads this killer disease.
There is good news for the future in the fight against AIDS. God promises that people will choose this solution under His government, which Christ will establish at His return to earth.
Jesus prophesied the dire world conditions before His promised return: "And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 24:12-13). He also foretold that "pestilences [disease epidemics] ... in various places" would be another sign before His coming (verse 7).
Today, as in the past, children suffer for the sins of their parents. Lamentations 5:1-7 recounts that, many centuries ago, some were orphaned because of their fathers' sins. The misery brought by sin can spread its suffering and heartache over several generations (Exodus 34:7).
But Christ has promised He will return to save this sin-stricken world from itself. He will usher in a kingdom in which diseases such as AIDS will no longer exist, because the world's inhabitants will choose a better way of life. We read about this in Isaiah 11:9: "For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea." With true knowl-edge, people will not choose damaging, self-destructive lifestyles.
A change of heart
For that to occur, though, man's heart must be changed. God's laws must be written in a person's heart. God has prophesied this will occur: "For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (Hebrews 8:10; compare Jeremiah 31:33).
Imagine a world in which marriage is respected to the point that no one looks for another sexual partner, where youths are not promiscuous and commit to wait until marriage to have sexual relations. AIDS and other venereal diseases will then be a distant memory.
God, who describes Himself as "a father of the fatherless" (Psalm 68:5), says that eventually He will wipe away the tears of those who respond to Him (Revelation 7:17; 21:4). These are some of the promises God will bring about when Christ establishes His blessed Kingdom.
The Good News is committed to proclaiming the gospel of God's Kingdom and the marvelous truths that will eventually lead to the elimination of the world's plagues. Then and only then will the terms AIDS and venereal disease be only a part of man's history. GN