Friday, February 27, 2009

The beginning of all this: the fate of Africa - HIV / AIDS

In addition to all the issues and difficulties that Africa has had to deal with, as noted in my previous posts, Africa has also had to deal with the overwhelming reality of HIV / AIDS in a way that few other places on the planet have had to.

AIDS was first recognized in Africa in the early 1980’s, as it was elsewhere. It started in the centre of the continent and soon spread along the trade and trucking routes mainly through heterosexual sex, in contrast to North America and Europe where it was spread predominantly through gay sex. The truckers doing long haul work, away from home, used the services of sex trade workers and spread the infection rapidly along the main routes and quickly north and south. Soon there was no where on the continent that was not affected by “the slim disease” as it was known due to its wasting affect. We now know that because of its long asymptomatic period that the virus had been in circulation and was being spread for as long as 20 years or more.

Husbands spread it to their wives when they got home and soon a whole generation was sick and dying. The whole world was scrambling, trying to make sense of the horror that was unfolding. In Africa, where epidemiologists speculated the virus had originated, the rate of infection was higher and the disease progression seemed more evolved. Thousands were dying. Children ended up as caregivers and nurses for their parents, hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned, and grandmothers stepped into the breach to raise their grandchildren, often in great hardship. Children ended up without any adults to care for them and were left to fend for themselves.

There was no organized assistance or money for this anywhere. Many African countries, as I tried to illustrate in my previous post, were in dire economic straits, without health care systems of any kind and no funds available to divert to this crisis. Aid from the 'first' world was slow to start because of the stigma attached to the disease as being a gay [ a disease belonging to a disenfranchised group in society – as it still is today, although to a lesser degree] and totally unknown phenomenon spread through hedonistic living and 'perverted' sexual behaviour. There was no inclination to act quickly in the west for its own people in need, let alone the hordes in faraway Africa. Remember Ronald Reagan could not even say the word AIDS in public until the last year of his presidency.

Soon we knew that millions were infected. A whole generation was dying in the prime of their lives. The professional class was as affected as the working class. Children went without teachers; there was a shortage of medical staff to help with it as they were dying too. The disease has a lot of stigma attached to it and so it was not dealt with publicly or head on. There was no education and virtually no condom use

Eventually a few leaders in a few countries realized that the people destruction and the economic impact of this disease was so huge, that total devastation threatened if no action was taken. Senegal and Uganda are two of the first countries to start and continue active public education and publicity campaigns on HIV /AIDS prevention. They successfully reduced their infection rates dramatically within a few years and have generally been able to keep them there.

But it has been very difficult for the whole continent. Besides the devastation caused by the great numbers of people dying with little care, crowds of orphans raising themselves in a manner reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies”, the loss of the professional class and no money, there were countervailing forces complicating the effort. The slowness of the world waking up to help was one, stigma was another and active spreading of wrong information is another. There have been lots of myths about HIV that get in the way of stopping its spread. For some time there was the idea that if you had sexual relations with a virgin, you would be cured. Another myth was that it was cured by special shaman made concoctions or special foods – such as the recent Health Minister of South Africa promoting leeks, garlic and onions as a cure. The idea that AIDS was not spread by the HIV virus also gained some currency and the South African Prime Minister Mbeki seemed to believe that and hampered efforts to make progress in that country. Finally, although by no means the last falsehood present, and to me the most shamefully egregious, was the Catholic Church pushing abstinence and teaching that condoms do not work; actively campaigning against their use.

Much of this still exists and we just don’t hear about it. The world – at least in the west, is tired of hearing about HIV /AIDS and the horror stories it brings. It is no longer “good press”. Bob Geldof and Bono have ‘guilted’ us to the limit. We are more entertained by new disasters both at home and abroad such as campus shooters, Darfur, and the horrible civil war in the Congo, the endless atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the posturings of crazed leaders in Iran and North Korea and…..

I am in the biz, know a bit about it and so can offer a little help. I have long thought about contributing my skills and realizing a dream even though the place of my dream is twisted beyond recognition. And now I am doing it.

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