HIV/AIDS continues to challenge Black America (FCN 12/4/2003)

UNITED NATIONS ( – The HIV/AIDS pandemic took the highest number of lives and produced the highest number of new infections since the surveillance of the disease started, according to a new report from the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to the report, in 2002, 4.8 million people contracted the disease and 2.75 million who were infected died–the highest ever, says “AIDS Epidemic Update 2003,” which was published to mark World AIDS Day, observed December 1. The report said that 30 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide live in southern Africa, home to two percent of the world’s population.


“It is quite clear that our current global efforts remain entirely inadequate for an epidemic that is continuing to spiral out of control,” UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said. He added that AIDS was tightening its grip on southern Africa and threatening other regions of the world such as Eastern Europe and Central Asia. A new wave of HIV epidemics is threatening India, Indonesia and Russia mostly due to HIV transmission through injecting drugs and unsafe sex, the report says.

But according to the UN, South Africa, with 5.3 million people with HIV (the largest total for a nation in the world), and sub-Saharan Africa, with 26.6 million living with the disease, collectively carry the brunt of the global pandemic. AIDS has already orphaned 11 million African children, according to “Africa’s Orphaned Generations,” a separate report issued by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

UNAIDS says that the pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa is mainly fueled by promiscuous heterosexual intercourse causing one in every 12 adult Africans in the region to be HIV-positive.

“In nations such as Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland, the HIV prevalence has assumed devastating proportions without signs of leveling off,” the report said. In 2002, Swaziland matched Botswana’s adult infection rate of nearly 39 percent, compared to just four percent 10 years ago.

However, the 30-page UN report said the picture is not totally bleak. The report lauded Uganda for “a remarkable feat” in fighting AIDS; in fact, Uganda is internationally praised as the rare African AIDS success story. Analysts said thanks to a tenacious, grassroots awareness, HIV prevalence in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, was eight percent in 2002, compared to a rate of 30 percent among pregnant women a decade ago.

According to Dr. David Serwadda, who was one of the first to study AIDS in Uganda in the early 1980s and head of its Institute of Public Health, today about 1.5 million Ugandans are said to be living with the disease, about six percent of the population. He credits President Yoweri Museveni for encouraging campaigns that raise awareness of the HIV prevalence.

The report mentioned Senegal and Somalia as nations that have been proactive in fighting the disease of HIV/AIDS. Senegal’s decision early in its epidemic to invest massively in HIV prevention and awareness programs in the 1980s have stabilized infection rates among Senegalese women “at around one percent for the past 13 years,” the UN report said.

The report also says the Somali phenomenon is “very interesting” given its poverty and “chaotic” political situations, with only one percent of the people having AIDS.

Organizations such as the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) believe that one solution to turning the pandemic around is to force African governments to see the problem through the lens of human rights. “African governments must make gender equality a central part of national AIDS programs if they are to succeed in fighting the epidemic,” HRW said.

The 40-page report, “Policy Paralysis: A Call for Action on HIV/AIDS–Related Human Rights Abuses Against Women and Girls in Africa,” said “Women and girls are dying by the millions, partly because their second-class status makes them vulnerable to violence and unsafe sex.”

Joanne Csete, director of HIV/AIDS Programs at HRW, said: “In the fight against AIDS, protecting women and girls from sexual abuse and ensuring their equal rights under the law are as crucial as keeping the blood supply clean.”

The UNAIDS report has drawn some different conclusions which, according to its drafters, shows a turning point in the fight against the pandemic in Africa. The report noted that, in the past two to three years, more money has been committed to Africa to fight HIV/AIDS through the Global Fund and President George Bush’s AIDS Initiative, which has brought the cost of antiretroviral drugs down.

But there are activists in the U.S. that dispute the UN when it comes to the five-year, $15 billion commitment from the Bush administration. Salih Booker, executive director of the Washington-based think tank “Africa Action,” accuses the administration of “failing” the people of Africa, because the money has yet to “materialize.”

“Bush has received accolades of leading the war on AIDS, while in reality his policies have been a betrayal of the people of Africa,” Mr. Booker said.

He will join student activists at Columbia University on December 1 as they stage a noontime “Die-In” on the steps of Columbia–to dramatize the effect of Mr. Bush’s AIDS policies in Africa and globally.

In the meantime, a group of religious organizations meeting in Yaounde, Cameroon on November 26 said they are not waiting for any more outside help to fight the AIDS pandemic on the continent. At the eighth Assembly of the All African Conference of Churches, an announcement was made that a partnership of organizations would work with faith-based groups at the local, national and regional levels in committing human and financial resources to fight the disease.

However, another group of activists in Africa are also standing up to offer a solution. At the Second International Muslim Religious Leaders Consultation on HIV/AIDS held May 19-23 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it was announced that “the lowest spread of AIDS is observed where the influence of Islam is greatest, such as in Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Chad, Mali, Nigeria and Guinea.

UNAIDS says that there are 300,000 people living with HIV in North Africa and the Middle East. But UN-sponsored scientists have observed that, in Africa, as the number of Muslims in a population decreases, the number of HIV-positive cases increases.

In a report placed before conferees in Kuala Lumpur, the Islamic Medical Association presented a position paper entitled “Islam is the Answer–Islam is the Cure.”

The report stated: “Principles of Islam are still preserved in everyday life in those countries where Muslims prevail. Following the hygienic and sanitary norms of Islam brings positive results.”

The medical group’s report said that, because Muslims perform the ablutions (cleaning process for prayer) and the rule of looking after food quality, “it won’t protect people from AIDS, but it will protect them against the dangerous infections.” The report said it is the “absence” of sanitary norms in Africa that helps to spread the disease.

“The Muslims of Africa stick to the rules of the religion in their personal and family lives. The religion is the main factor that holds back the spread of the fatal disease in Muslim communities,” the Islamic Medical Association said.