National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

February 7


My senior year of high school: As my uncle lay dying of AIDS in the hospital, a classmate of mine explained to our AP psychology class that God had created AIDS to punish gay people.

I didn’t say anything. My uncle was gay, and I was afraid that would only cement his point.

It’s 17 years later. Apparently, God didn’t know when to quit.

He punished homosexuals and heterosexuals, Blacks and Whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and First Nations, men and women, the poor, and of course sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps because he felt he hadn’t given that continent enough to contend with already.

HIV/AIDS is neither racist nor sexist. It is an equal-opportunity infector, with only one preference: that its host live long enough to infect others.

Still, in 2004, men accounted for nearly three-quarters of all new HIV/AIDS cases in the United States, and African-Americans—who make only 12% of the general population—accounted for half of all new cases.

The spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa and among African-Americans led to other rumors about AIDS: not that it was sent by God to punish gays, but that it was invented by the government to use against Blacks.

The persistence (or truth-resistance) of rumors like these underlies a mystery that medical doctors and scientists haven’t explained. Ever since its youth in the early 1980’s, HIV/AIDS has displayed an uncanny ability to play upon the fears and prejudices of America with the expertise of a 1930’s dictator rising to power.

By taking root in the ‘Out’ caste in America (The mysterious killer was once called ‘Gay Cancer’), it ensured that serious government effort to stop or study the virus would be postponed for years, that millions of future hosts would be stigmatized, and that open dialogue about the disease would be nearly impossible.

The problem worsened as AIDS took hold in minority communities, where negative feelings about homosexuality ran even deeper than in society at large:

“Today, while there are black men who are openly gay, it seems that the majority of those having sex with men still lead secret lives, products of a black culture that deems masculinity and fatherhood as a black man’s primary responsibility — and homosexuality as a white man’s perversion.”

Double Lives on the Down Low – New York Times, 2003

Men in heterosexual relationships who secretly have sex with other men are said to be on the “down low”. According to Ruth Houston:

“Record numbers of Black women are contracting HIV/AIDS through heterosexual contact – mainly  from husbands and boyfriends on the down low…Many of us have been mistakenly led to believe we can tell a “down low brother” by his outward appearance or mannerisms – the way he walks, talks, dresses, or acts.  As a result, many innocent Black men have been falsely accused.”

Black AIDS Day: A Wake-up Call for Black Women About the Down Low

But Keith Boykin, a former White House aide, believes the role of Down Low men has been overplayed:

“The down low…provided a sexy new vehicle to drive home a more predictable message about AIDS in the black community. With hints of closeted sexuality and talk of double lives, it played right into our stereotypical image of black men, and it conjured up the secrecy of a mysterious underground lifestyle.”

Beyond the Down Low, 2005

The same year that I was told that God had sent AIDS to punish gays, another classmate, an African-American bound for Princeton, argued in class that homosexuality was a Western phenomenon that didn’t exist in Africa. Even more confusing was my teacher’s response in evidence that it did: “What are you talking about? AIDS is rampant in Africa!

If God did create AIDS, perhaps he did so, not to punish the marginalized, but to test the rest of us. We didn’t fail the test completely, but we haven’t passed with marks to write home about.

We have invested billions in AIDS research, developed miracle medicines that were unimaginable only a decade ago. But even this has shined a gloomy light on another human flaw.

Because of miracle technology, some of the uninfected continue to live their lives as if HIV/AIDS is no longer a fatal disease, [“If we change our lifestyles, the Viruses have won!“?] expecting that, worst case scenario, science will be there to bail them out.

A Peace Corps volunteer tells the story of how, at the end of her two years, the water pump broke in her small rural village. The villagers expected her to fix it. When she told them she thought they should fix it, that it would benefit the whole village to do so, they “laughed and said they would just wait for the next volunteer to come” and ask them. These formerly self-sufficient villagers had grown, not just to expect foreign aid, but to rely upon it.

Have we become a culture of dependency, confident that science will bail us out of the next mess?

AIDS has a remarkable power to adapt and reinvent itself, both chemically and politically. There is still no cure for the disease, and the drugs that now allow some Westerners to live with HIV are still wildly unaffordable for millions dying in Africa and the Third World.

Working in the field of drug and alcohol addiction in Los Angeles, I found that the “War on HIV/AIDS” is not so much a war as an endless series of battles that are fought through guerrilla tactics, by ordinary men and women on every street and in every house in cities across the continent.

And that miracle drugs are not the shields of the soldiers. They are band-aids for the wounded. The weapon is responsibility.

Every 10 seconds, someone on the planet dies of AIDS. More than 8,000 people will die today from this disease.

Make no mistake about it, the cavalry will not come to save us…

You see, we are the cavalry.

Keith Boykin, An Exhortation To a Weary Army

Women’s Heart Disease Awareness Day

February 5

Today’s Wear Red Day, but it’s not a fashion statement. It’s a life statement: to build awareness of women’s heart disease.

Today women are at greater risk of fatal heart attack than men.

Each year more women die of cardiovascular disease than cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria combined. While mortality rates for men have gone down, the danger for women has risen. Around the world 16 women die of cardiovascular illness every minute.

Recognizing the early symptoms of a heart attack is essential in saving lives. Women rush their husband or male family members to the hospital, but tend to be more dismissive of the same warning signs in themselves.

Sweats, heart palpitations, shortness of breath–Could be more than menopause.

The “Hollywood Heart Attack” in which someone clutches their chest in pain is not the standard for everyone. Chest pain is the most common symptom, but almost half of all women who experience a heart attack do not have chest pain. Atypical symptoms include:

  • back, neck or jaw pain
  • nausea or vomiting
  • indigestion
  • weakness, fatigue
  • dizziness, lightheadedness

Symptoms that can occur months prior to a heart attack include:

  • fatigue
  • sleep disturbance
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • indigestion
  • anxiety
  • shoulder blade or upper back pain

Recognize the symptoms: Women tend to end up at the emergency room 15 to 20 minutes later than men, and those minutes can mean a life.

Both women and men can fight heart disease through cardiovascular exercise, a healthy diet, and regular screenings.
Heart Disease Signs
Heart Healthy Women

World Toilet Day – Why you should give a s***

November 19

Privy at Goat Peak, Curt Smith

November 19 is World Toilet Day.

You should be in for a funny post.

Unfortunately you are not.

Poor sanitation kills more people each year than AIDS, but you won’t see any celebrities sporting brown ribbons at this year’s Oscars, and discussions of toilets still emit a response from educated adults akin to the uncomfortable, strained snickering of 7th graders during a sex ed lesson.

“As we passed along the reeking banks of the sewer, the sun shone upon a narrow slip of the water…more like watery mud than muddy water…we saw drains and sewers emptying their filthy contents into it…we heard bucket after bucket of filth splash into it; and the limbs of the vagrant boys bathing in it…we saw a little child…lower a tin can with a rope to fill a large bucket that stood beside her…As the little thing dangled her tin cup as gently as possible into the stream, a bucket of night-soil was poured down from the next gallery.”

India? Bangladesh? Nope, the above description is from the London Morning Chronicle, circa 1849, during a devastating cholera epidemic that few understood. Today we know about the importance of separating feces from drinking water. Yet toilets are not considered a top priority for many inhabitants of developing countries, even for those residents who chat on their new cell phones in public, but do their business in the stream. And even in countries like the U.S. it was only recently that public outcry over restaurant sanitation led to that industry’s standardized ratings system.


World Toilet Day was created by the World Toilet Organization not only to spread awareness of sanitation issues, but to lend ‘speakability’ to one of the most important and overlooked inventions of the past 200 years.

A lot of people asked why we use the word ‘toilet‘,” says Naureen Nayyar, a representative of the WTO…

“It’s because…if we tell people we want to change the role and the way people view toilets we can’t go about it in a bashful manner. Every change that’s come about in society…has come from making people uncomfortable at first.”

The World Toilet Organization has taken on the extremely uphill battle of making the toilet ‘sexy’ and hence desirable to residents of countries seeking to emulate Western lifestyles. While cell phones are the rage, you won’t find toilets of the rich and famous on film or TV. In fact, the ubiquitous porcelain bowl didn’t make its big screen debut until the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Psycho.

With the trendiness of the green movement and environmentalism, sanitation has finally come to the forefront of world attention, but for some reason the concept of the toilet has remained behind (no pun intended).

On the World Toilet Organization’s website, you can sponsor a household toilet for $140. I asked Nayyar why on earth toilets are so expensive in the 3rd World. She explained that part of the money goes toward education, teaching the public about the importance of a safe, separate place for defecation.

“Toilets are not a great topic, they are not loved, they are not appreciated, but they are a huge necessity that could help reduce the increase of diseases as populations grow, and the sanitation business is a vital part of keeping our waters and world clean.”

The river runs stinking, and all its brink
Is a fringe of every detectable stink:
Bone-boilers and gas-workers and gut-makers there
Are poisoning earth and polluting air.
But touch them who dares; prevent them who can;
What is the Health to the Wealth of man?

Punch, Sept. 2, 1854

The Ghost Map – Steven Johnson – The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

Ode to the Commode – LA Times

No Tobacco Day

May 31

Today is No Tobacco Day, instituted by the World Health Organization in 1987. Originally observed on April 7, 1988 as a day of “No Smoking”, the name was changed to reflect the dangers of all forms of tobacco, and the date was moved to May 31, we assume to celebrate the birthday of Clint Eastwood.

Used to be no movie star would be caught live in front of a camera without a cigarette in his or her mouth. It was an uphill battle convincing cinema-going youth not to smoke what with images of their favorite stars puffing away on screen.

But as their movie heroes died of cancer—from Yul Brynner to John Wayne—the anti-smoking argument became more convincing.

Still, today bloggers like the good doctoratlarge point out the top eleven oft-overlooked advantages of smoking, including:

“8) Nicotine is great for constipation.”

“5) You burn a hole in your pocket (literally if you are not careful), learning to survive with meager resources.”


“2) You learn to kiss butts, and as everyone knows, this is a priceless asset to those wishing to make it big in life…”

Over the past 25 years, the general public’s view on smoking has changed immensely. Even Dirty Harry has altered his views on smoking, (if not on gun control):

Youtube – Clint Eastwood Enforces Smoking Ban


The Deadliest Creature on Earth

April 25

Statistically, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning, crushed by a vending machine, or flattened by falling airplane parts than to be killed by a shark.

In terms of deadliest animals, sharks barely make the top ten and are superseded by the vicious jellyfish (100 human deaths per year) and hippopotami (200 DPY).

Clocking in at #7 are lions (250)
#6 Bees (400)
#5 Elephants (600)
#4 Crocodiles (2000)
#3 Scorpians (5000)
#2 Snakes (100,000)

But the death toll of all these murderers together wouldn’t be a tenth of Public Health Enemy #1:

Weighing in at 2.5 milligrams and half an inch in length, the Mosquito kills 2 to 5 million people each year, from one disease alone: Malaria.

Today on World Malaria Day (formerly Africa Malaria Day) organizations such as WHO are getting the word out about the leading cause of premature mortality in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, malaria consumes four out of every ten public health dollars, and one out of every five children in sub-Saharan countries will die of malaria before their fifth birthday. 3000 every day.

A Harvard study in the year 2000 found that, had Malaria been eliminated 35 years earlier, the GDPs of Central and Southern African nations would be 30% higher today.

The vast majority of the infected are children in Africa, but the disease also effects South and Central America, the Indian subcontinent, and Southern Asia.

What can we do about it?

From 1992 to 2006, despite medical advances with other diseases, malaria infection and mortality rates actually increased, as strains of malaria became resistant to drugs such as chloroquine. Once cheap and readily-available, chloroquine is now ineffective in half of Africa’s malaria cases.

There are no vaccines proven effective against malaria. And though prophylactic drugs are available, the best forms of prevention today are still the simplest. Mosquito netting around beds and mosquito repellant are two.

It’s estimated that it would take $3 billion a year to eradicate Malaria. Not a chunk of change anyone wants to part with, but still less than the amount spent each week on the war in Iraq.

On the other hand, in the past two years the President’s Malaria Initiative, a $1 billion+ initiative focusing on preventive treatment in children under 5 and pregnant mothers, has helped to reduce new cases of malaria across 15 African nations.

A recent shark attack in San Diego made national headlines yesterday. The attack was horrifying and tragic, no doubt.

But imagine if the same attention were paid to each of the million+ fatal animal attacks each year by the common mosquito…

Or if we could see the devastation of a 9/11-size catastrophe, 3000 people dead from malaria, every single day

The resources devoted to solving such a crisis would be bottomless. But we don’t hear about it in the news precisely because it happens every day.

Malaria once terrorized Europe and America as it now does Africa. On April 25th we imagine a day when Malaria Day memorializes those millions killed from the eradicated disease, rather than the 3000 who will die today.

President Talks About Malaria in Hartford, Conn.

UN Launches World Malaria Day

Drive Against Malaria

Malaria Free Future

Father Damien: Patron Saint of Outcasts

April 15

Here it’s been over a year and we’ve yet to celebrate any holidays devoted to Belgians. Today, April 15, ends all that. No, the Belgians didn’t invent taxes, but they did produce a priest by the name of Father Damien, and not the demon-exorcising priest of horror movie fame.

Our Father Damien was a very real, breathing human being from Flemish Brabant. He was born in 1840 and became a Picpus Brother in the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1860. In 1864 he was sent to the far off Kingdom of Hawaii where he served on the island of Oahu. And it’s in Hawaii, not in Belgium, that people celebrate Father Damien Day.

Our Lady of Peace, Molokai, Hawaii
Our Lady of Peace, Molokai, Hawaii

In the mid-18th century Hawaii underwent a horrible epidemic of several diseases, brought to the islands by foreigners—diseases to which the Hawaiian islanders had no immunities. Chief among these illnesses was the devastating and very contagious disease of leprosy.

King Kamehameha V established a colony on the island of Molokai where all those suffering from leprosy were quarantined. “Kalaupapa” was designed by necessity to be a self-sustaining colony, for few healthy people would go near it. However, because of the debilitating effects of leprosy, many of the inhabitants had difficulty farming and fending for themselves, and word spread of a Lord of the Rings society—wait, no—Lord of the Flies society developing there. (More anarchy, less hobbits.) The Church knew a priest should be sent to the island, but also knew such an assignment would effectively be a death sentence because of contagious nature of the disease.

In 1873 the 33 year-old Father Damien asked to be transfered to Kalaupapa and be priest to the lepers. There, Father Damien did more than pray:

“He washed their bodies, bandaged their wounds, tidied their rooms and made them as comfortable as possible. He encouraged those who were well to work alongside him by building cottages, coffins, a rectory, an orphanage for the children and repairing the road. He also taught them to farm, play musical instruments, and sing…Even before he was diagnosed as having leprosy he used the term “we lepers” in his sermons for he wished to identify with them as a means of bring them to Christ.” — Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace

Father Damien felt the first symptoms of leprosy in 1884. He continued working with the people of Kalaupapa another five years. As word spread of his deeds across the Christian world, much-needed donations and supplies finally flowed into the colony.

Father Damien died on April 15, 1889.

Despite all his deeds, Father Damien was not your steroetypical hero. He was derided by his detractors as “a coarse, dirty man, head-strong and bigoted.” (Reverend C.M.Hyde, 8/2/1889) In short, they say, he was no saint.

However, this October those detractors will be proven wrong. On October 11, 2009, 120 years after his death, Father Damien will officially become a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He is the patron of those with leprosy and HIV/AIDS, and of ‘outcasts’.

Father Damien
Father Damien (1840-1889)