Celebs take mission to underdeveloped countries

It’s one thing to host a fund-raiser for AIDS awareness, it’s quite another to venture out to where the disease remains a pandemic — not only to learn firsthand about its tragic effects but to reach out and assist its victims.

Ashley Judd, for example, visited the ghettos of Mumbai, India, in March with Population Service Intl.’s Youth AIDS program to teach female sex workers about AIDS prevention. Sharon Stone’s dedication to battling AIDS has taken precedent over her film work in recent years, traveling the globe to such conferences as the 2005 World Economic Forum to speak with government officials, scientists and corporate executives about the disease’s toll in underdeveloped nations. And pop star Annie Lennox reaches out to those South African patients in hospices, orphanages and villages who are riddled with the disease and afraid to reveal themselves due to their society’s ostracizing.

“Once we tend to the women and children afflicted by AIDS in such countries as South Africa,” Stone says, “the issue then becomes, how do we keep them HIV negative?” She explains how polluted water only heightens the impact of AIDS in Third World countries. To prevent transmission of the virus, HIV-infected mothers cannot breastfeed their babies. They are then faced with the dilemma of mixing formula with unpotable water.

“We have to look at the global issues,” Stone says. “It’s not just about AIDS. It’s looking at the person next to you with thoughtfulness and care. If we are AIDS workers, the issues then become, how do I work on mosquito nets, TB shots and clean-water programs?”

It’s no coincidence that several women in show business such as Madonna, Oprah Winfrey and Elizabeth Taylor have aligned themselves with AIDS awareness organizations: Women are at greater risk of becoming HIV infected than men, according to amfAR statistics. In the U.S. alone, the proportion of HIV/AIDS cases among women tripled from 8% in 1985 to 27% in 2004.

“In South Africa you have whole generations being wiped out by AIDS,” says Lennox, who became affected by the devastation there after hearing Nelson Mandela speak at his former prison cell on Robben Island in 2002. “You have grandmothers taking care of toddlers because their parents have died.”

In addition to performing in concerts that support Mandela’s sub-Saharan AIDS organization 46664 (named after his prison number), Lennox wrote a female empowerment anthem, “Sing,” which is on her new album “Songs of Mass Destruction,” calling for the implementation of mother-to-child transmission prevention programs in South African maternity wards. If HIV-infected women obtain the proper medication during their pregnancies, Lennox says, there’s a good chance their children will be born disease-free. Lennox enlisted the help of 23 artists, whom she nicknamed the Choir of 23, including Madonna, Fergie, Melissa Etheridge and Celine Dion.

Stone, Lennox and Judd all have deep roots in the cause. Lennox’s efforts date back to her involvement with the Cole Porter “Red, Hot + Blue” album in 1991. As a social activist at the U. of Kentucky, Judd took pride in being a rabble-rouser by organizing campuswide class walkouts in response to AIDS. In the early ’80s Stone worked alongside AIDS patient Elizabeth Glaser well before charities were in existence for the disease.

In their view, petitioning the government to support the eradication of the HIV virus isn’t enough. Taking action, especially via nongovernmental organizations, is a more effective approach, they say.

“What has motivated me over the last five years has been how ineffectual government leaders are,” Lennox says. “They’ll spend trillions of dollars on a war in Iraq, which affects people’s lives, instead of addressing the issues of health care in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

For Stone, amfAR benefits yield results: Donations fund the scientific research for life-extending drugs, which amfAR then administers to communities around the globe.

“We had 100% of the mothers in Massachusetts last year who were HIV-positive give birth to children who were HIV-negative,” Stone says. “We’d like to have the people who do HIV research at Harvard implement this model in Botswana.”

Yet, even the smallest accomplishments on behalf of one person in the battle against AIDS can snowball into a miracle.

“Who saves one person saves the entire world,” Judd asserts. “It’s impossible to overestimate protecting an individual’s life. The cascading domino effect of one person is incalculable.”

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