Slowing Trends in HIV/Aids Prevalence in Southern Africa

Crisford Chogugudza

London, UK - Jul 2007

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Hearing about slowing trends of HIV/Aids in Africa is the best news since the advent of the disease in the early 1980s. However, this changing trend has come at the cost of many African lives, most of whom were innocent victims.

Southern Africa has remained at the epicentre of the continent’s epidemic with unprecedented infection rates.  South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland being the worst affected. The United States based Baylor International Initiative in 2006 reported that Sub-Saharan Africa has approximately 42 million people living with HIV/Aids, and that the majority of those infected are situated in the above named Southern African countries where the national adult prevalence rates exceed 30%.

According the United Nations, HIV/Aids has had one of the most devastating effects on life and development in Africa in comparison to wars and droughts.  It is arguably the largest single cause of death in Sub Saharan Africa.  HIV/Aids increasingly and disproportionately affects women and adolescent girls in Southern Africa.  Women and girls are at a high risk of coercive sex and their situation is compounded by stigma and discrimination.  Women with HIV/Aids often face eviction from their homes if they disclose their status.  

A number of women organisations with the support of their respective governments are working tirelessly to reverse this trend and progress has been made in some countries.

A very detrimental factor about HIV/Aids in most African countries is that it has significantly affected the economically active population of between 19-45 age group.  In a number of Southern African countries, HIV/Aids accounts for more than 70% of the bed occupancy rate in most hospitals.  There has been no major downward shift in this trend. 

There are also places in rural Africa where entire villages have been wiped out by the HIV/Aids scourge.  In some cases only children and the elderly have survived; as a result the number of orphans in Southern Africa for instance has reached record levels unprecedented in recent history.  This situation has unfortunately created enormous challenges for most of the affected countries, Zimbabwe being a prime example.

However, since 2004, a substantial reduction in national HIV/Aids prevalence has been noted in Zimbabwe.  The reduction in HIV/Aids infection rates in the country has been heralded by evidence that HIV reduction efforts, particularly strategies based upon ‘Abstinence’, ‘Being faithful’ and ‘Use of Condoms’ (ABC) are having an impact. With the support of national and international institutions such as the Ministry of Health, National Aids Council, the US government, the UN and other partner organisations respectively, the once dreaded killer monster has for the first time been demystified.

It is ironic that Zimbabwe, a country in critical economic dire straits is managing to address the problem of HIV/Aids with some success although there are still many challenges ahead.  It is also encouraging that people in Africa can now live a little longer with the disease courtesy of the introduction of Anti Retroviral drugs.  HIV/Aids albeit still being the major cause of death in Southern African, is now a manageable disease. 

It is disturbing however that Anti Retrovirals are not easily accessible by the poorest of the poor in most of Africa.  In some African countries there are reports of Anti Retrovirals only being accessible by the elite; the poor and equally deserving are being ignored and left for dead.

The Africa Multi-Country Aids Program 2000-2006 in their recent publications have stated that ultimate success in defeating HIV/Aids will depend on marshalling effective prevention, care and treatment measures to boost ‘social immune systems’.  Changing beliefs, perceptions and social and individual behaviour in relation to the disease is important as this will help to reverse the advance of HIV and stop the damage caused by Aids. 

The main problem which many Southern African countries are now facing is the complacency that has emerged following the success of anti retroviral drugs.  It is concerning that re-infection rates have gone up in the region due to false hopes of a cure, more effort needs to be invested in this area with a view managing infection rates.

In conclusion, it is significant to state that whilst African governments have been blamed for being initially lethargic in responding to the Aids crisis, their current involvement in addressing the HIV/Aids menace is commendable.  In Southern Africa for instance, the government of South Africa in conjunction with local and international partner organisations is now taking a lead in the use and distribution of Anti Retrovirals to the poor and infected.  

These efforts are more easily sustained if developed countries and multilateral finance institutions e.g. World Bank continue to support HIV/Aids reduction strategies in Africa on a humanitarian basis irrespective of whether the countries leadership are ‘democratic’ or not.  A penny that goes towards HIV/Aids reduction is money definitely not wasted.