July 22, 2000
''PREVENTION DOES WORK''
The most remarkable words at the
recent AIDS conference in South Africa came from Dr. Peter Lamptey, of
Family Health International: ''Prevention does work.''
Prevention? As TIME magazine
reported, ''As a metaphor for hopelessness, it's hard to equal the AIDS
crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. Twenty-four million of the area's people are
HIV-positive, 70% of the world's infected population. Thirteen million
Africans have already died of AIDS, and 10 million more are expected to die
within five years. In South Africa, 1 in 5 adults is infected; in Botswana,
the rate of infection is 1 in 3.''
The scale of this pandemic is
difficult to grasp. In all of World War I, only 8 million people died, about
half the number dead of AIDS in Africa. Life expectancy would have been 73
years in 2010 in Tanzania without AIDS, but will be a grim 33 years instead.
Nor can Africa pay for the
expensive drugs that have dropped the U.S. death rate from 48,000 in 1994 to
14,000 in 1997. African health care spending is only $34 per person per year
vs. an average of $2,485 in the U.S.
Yet AIDS is almost completely
preventable if people practice chastity.
How can that message be
communicated in the world's sex-drenched culture? How can it be communicated
in Africa which often lacks the most elementary understanding of how disease
is transmitted? Tens of thousands of teenage African girls are being
ravished by AIDS-infected men who believe that their cure is to have sex
with a virgin!
Nevertheless, even in Africa, where
4 million new people are infected with AIDS annually, a strategy of
prevention is working in Senegal and Uganda plus Thailand, says Dr. Lamptey.
''Senegal has maintained one of the
lowest rates of HIV infections in sub-Sahara Africa,'' he said. Less than 1%
of pregnant Senegalese women are infected compared to 10%-45% in various
Why? Senegal's President Abdou
Dioff courageously discussed the threat of AIDS in the mid-1980's, long
before it was addressed by high U.S. officials. Dioff made sure his
ministers launched an education campaign. Public service announcements,
church groups and Muslim mosques all became involved. ''Every year we have
campaigns on television, newspapers, radio showing how to avoid AIDS,'' said
Gerald Diouf, a press counselor at Senegal's chancery.
''Senegal is a Muslim country, and
you don't find HIV in Muslim countries, where there is much more
faithfulness in marriage,'' adds Shepherd Smith, of the Institute for Youth
Thailand, by contrast, is a 95%
Buddhist country. Initially, HIV spread quickly through the Thai population,
first through intravenous drug users and later through prostitutes, 30
percent of whom were infected by the mid-1990s.
The country promoted and enforced a
''100% condom-only brothel policy,'' with police making spot checks to be
certain that every prostitute required clients to wear one. Condoms were
made widely available and cheap. Thailand launched an aggressive education
campaign involving business leaders. The government also appropriated $75
million to do widespread testing, so that infected people would learn that
they have AIDS and could spread it to others.
By contrast, 90% of the millions
infected in Africa do not know it! Since the disease usually takes a decade
before full-blown AIDS kills the person, many are needlessly infected.
Finally, Uganda, a predominantly
Christian country, became ''one of the most severely affected countries,
with a total HIV prevalence among adults of almost 10 percent,'' Dr. Lamptey
reports. ''It is also one of the countries where the epidemic was recognized
early and where it has enjoyed tremendous political leadership as well as
commitment of adequate financial resources.''
Way back in 1987, Uganda President
Yoweri Museveni addressed the issue frankly something which Nelson Mandela
did not do until last year, and his successor still refuses to do.
Museveni's galvanized the media, the Red Cross and the Catholic Church to
give health care, and care of orphans. Result? The percent of infected young
women has fallen from 28% to 10%.
Thus, regardless of religious
background, ''prevention does work.'' But the primary ingredient is
courageous political leadership willing to make a clear moral case.
What is the U.S. response? For
years, very little financial help was made available, and that mostly for
condoms which by themselves, had little effect. This week, the U.S.
announced $1 billion worth of loans for Africa to buy U.S. drugs. Lamptey's
reaction: ''It is disappointing that our country is asking those devastated
countries to borrow at a commercial rate.''
There are 10 million orphans.
Readers can help by giving to World Vision (888 56-CHILD), which cares for
20,000+ or Catholic Relief (800 736-3467).
Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.