Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Straight talk on AIDS day

Today is World AIDS day. I've written before on AIDS, which is presently the greatest menace to humanity by far. I won't drown you with more numbers. You can find out about those at the UNAIDS organization's website.

Dr Susan Hunter, author of Black Death: AIDS in Africa*, notes that a historic graph of world population would note three great dips; they coincide with the black death that plague Europe in the Middle Ages, the genocide of the North American Indians after the Spanish conquest and the explosion of the AIDS pandemic.

[*-For more information on the book, click here]

Hunter's book tells the untold story of AIDS in Africa, home to 80 percent of the 40 million people in the world currently infected with HIV. She weaves together the history of colonialism in Africa, an insider's take on the reluctance of drug companies to provide cheap medication and vaccines in poor countries, and personal anecdotes from the 20 years she spent in Africa working on the AIDS crisis.

Last night, the BBC World Service's World Today program aired an extended interview with President Festus Mogae of Botswana; the southern African nation, one of the richest and most stable on the continent, has the highest HIV rate in the world.

It was one of the most astonishing interviews I'd ever hard. While most people have come to expect politicians to equivocate, spin or at least gloss over shortcomings, President Mogae's frankness blew me away. He admitted that his country's policies weren't having the desired effect in slowing the HIV rate. He admitted that the messages of the anti-HIV campaign weren't being heeded. He admitted that the program of offering retroviral drugs to those infected wasn't financially sustainable in the long term, even if it did some good. What else could be done? "We have to say things like 'abstain or die'," said the president.

In Africa, many leaders have been reticent to talk about HIV-AIDS. Former Zambian leader waited until after the scourge had a stranglehold on his country to admit publicly his son had AIDS. South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki seems to think the virus is some sort of fiction and what scientists call HIV is really diseases caused by poverty.

The only country where HIV-AIDS has been seriously rolled back is Uganda. And that was in no small part due to the candor of Uganda's president who made fighting the scourge a national priority. Even to the point of tackling taboos head on. Though there is no single magic bullet for fighting the pandemic, President Mogae's straight talk is a welcome step.

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