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A health epidemic as destructive as the bubonic plague is currently causing massive suffering, yet many Americans are hardly aware that it exists. The crisis is AIDS in Africa, a pandemic that has killed 13 million people and is tearing African society apart at its seams. We have the resources to tackle the disaster, but we must make lasting commitments to lend assistance through education, prevention and treatment programs. In May, the magnitude of the disease jolted the international conscience when UNAIDS, a United Nations task force monitoring the global HIV/AIDS crisis, released a report summing up the chilling facts: Six people around the world under the age of 25 -- most of them in sub-Saharan Africa -- contract AIDS every minute. Globally, 53 million people -- significantly more than the number of people killed in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined -- have been infected, and 19 million have died. The 13th International AIDS Conference, held in South Africa in July, fostered conversation and cooperation among activists and policymakers, and in August, President Clinton signed into law a bill that dedicated $300 million to the problem. However, in the United States, the momentum of the summer's legislation has not survived into autumn's campaign season. Both presidential candidates have been virtually silent on the issue, but we must demand that the Gore and Bush campaigns address this crisis. This epidemic should be at the forefront of political discourse as we prepare to elect not only a new president, but new legislators in November. Though the U.S. has made significant progress toward taming HIV domestically, Americans are not immune to the disease nor to the unknown consequences it will wreak on international stability. The epidemic will not end in Africa. Russia and Asia are fast approaching mind-boggling infection rates. The Clinton administration has now designated AIDS a threat to our national security because the disease has the power to swell poverty and incite ethnic wars. The AIDS plague could topple democratic governments that currently maintain peace and order in sub-Saharan Africa. With warnings as early as 1990 from both the World Health Organization and the CIA, the magnitude of this catastrophe was not unexpected. However, 70 percent of the 34.3 million people in the world infected with HIV or AIDS are sub-Saharan Africans: The U.S. and other Western powers dropped the ball on fighting AIDS around the world because the people dying didn't matter. Xenophobia and racism toward Africa, holdovers from a not-too-distant colonial past, made it easier for the West to justify ignoring the cries for help from this continent. Fears about a skyrocketing global population contributed to our willingness to let AIDS thin Third World populations. Added to U.S. indifference was the absence of a direct threat to our country's financial or political interests. Our economy would not be harmed by lives lost in Africa. Though we cannot erase the shame of having looked the other way for the past decade while AIDS ravaged a continent, we can choose to act now. The United States, in conjunction with other governments, must multiply its efforts to battle the pandemic. Peter Piot, director of UNAIDS, estimates that it will take $3 billion of aid annually for basic prevention and care in Africa. This figure is 10 times what is currently being spent. The effort to end the problem begins when we make AIDS in Africa a priority in America. By financing massive education programs, we can help stem the disease's spread and reverse the epidemic. In Uganda, UNAIDS reported, prevention programs cut infection rates almost in half. New cases can also be avoided by funding drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission. And with cooperation from African governments, Western health officials can teach Africans how certain cultural taboos only increase the spread of the disease. We can no longer sustain the attitude that it's "their" problem. It is humanity's problem. The majority of victims dying in Africa have no voices -- no internationally read newspapers to cry their case, no governments powerful enough in the global economy to wield leverage. If respect for human life is not a strong enough justification for spending U.S. dollars to combat AIDS in Africa, consider this: History will look back on us as it has Nazi-era society and ask: What did you do to stop the suffering

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