AIDS in Africa

Africa has been hit harder by the HIV/AIDS virus than any other region of the world. More than 17 million Africans have died from AIDS and another 25 million are infected with the HIV virus, approximately 1.9 million of whom are children.

AIDS in Africa (Reuters/Radu Sigheti)
AIDS patient Kelvin Kalasa, 30, is helped into a bath at the Mother of Mercy Hospice in Chilanga, Zambia. The hospice is run by Sister Leonia Komas who founded it eight years ago. The nun and her staff provide care to the poorest AIDS victims in the area.

Sub-Saharan Africa had 30 million people living with HIV/AIDS by early 2003 after 3.5 million new infections in 2002. 2.4 million Africans died in 2002. 10 million young people (aged 15–24) and almost 3 million children under 15 are living with HIV.

Very, very few with HIV or AIDS in Africa get antiretroviral treatment. Many millions are not receiving medicines to treat opportunistic infections.

Much greater numbers of people who acquired HIV over the past years are becoming ill – it takes up to 10 years from infection to illness, so AIDS in Africa is often hidden. In the absence of massively expanded prevention efforts, the AIDS in Africa death toll will continue rising for another decade. The worst of the AIDS in Africa impact will be felt in the next decade and beyond. It is not too late to introduce measures to reduce that impact, including wider access to HIV medicines and help for the poor.

In four southern African countries, national adult HIV prevalence has exceeded over 30%: Botswana (38.8%), Lesotho (31%), Swaziland (33.4%) and Zimbabwe (33.7%). Food crises faced in the latter three countries are linked the HIV/AIDS epidemic, especially on the lives of young, productive adults.

Yet, there hopeful signs that the epidemic of AIDS in Africa could eventually be brought under control. In South Africa, HIV prevalence rates fell to 15.4% in 2001 (down from 21% in 1998) for pregnant women under 20. Syphilis rates among pregnant women attending antenatal clinics also fell to 2.8% in 2001, from 11.2% four years earlier – suggesting that awareness campaigns and prevention programmes are working.

Every day in Africa:

– HIV/AIDS kills 6,300 people
– 8,500 people are infected with the HIV virus
– 1,400 newborn babies are infected during childbirth or by their mothers’ milk.
– 25 million people in Africa have HIV – this is 70% of global infections. Almost 2 million of African cases are children under the age of 15.
– Currently more than 12 million children in Africa have lost at least one parent to HIV/AIDS; that number is expected to reach 18 million by 2010.
– In sub-Saharan Africa, there are currently 4.1 million people with AIDS who are in immediate need of life-saving anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). At the end of last year, only an estimated 50,000 of these people were able to take these drugs.
– AIDS experts estimate that it will cost more than $10.5 billion a year to fight AIDS globally – that price tag will escalate to more than $15 billion a year by 2007. Wealthy countries currently spend less than $4 billion on global AIDS.
– The main ways AIDS is transmitted are sexual intercourse, unsafe injections, transmission from mother to child at birth or through breastfeeding, and transfusion of contaminated blood or blood products.

People with AIDS don’t suffer alone. The disease attacks their families and communities as well. AIDS has stripped out an entire generation of parents, farmers, doctors, leaders. 12 million African children have already lost one or both parents to AIDS, and unless we take serious action now, there will be more than 18 million AIDS orphans by the end of the decade.

Millions of children will have lost not only their parents, but their teachers, nurses and friends too. Businesses are losing their workers, governments are losing their civil servants, families are losing their breadwinners. As a result, entire communities are devastated and economies that are already crippled by poverty, debts and unfair trade policies are further compromised.

While the moral case stands alone as a reason to act, richer countries also have economic and security reasons to fight this emergency. As we’ve seen in the case of Afghanistan, devastated, unstable states can become breeding grounds for terrorists.

Seeing Africa as our neighbor, and acting now to stop the spread of AIDS, is not only the moral thing to do – but it’s also the practical thing.

The good news is that we know what works. Successes in a handful of countries such as Uganda and Senegal have shown that HIV rates can be brought down through effective AIDS prevention campaigns. Education, media campaigns, and community work with the most vulnerable can stop people from getting the HIV virus in the first place. AIDS drugs also have the potential to make a huge difference to the impact of the pandemic. In the past year, people living with AIDS in Africa have dared to hope that they might get access to anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) that will keep them alive to work and care for their families. These drugs work so well that they produce a ‘Lazarus’ effect – patients at death’s door can be back at work within 2 months of starting treatment. Evidence shows that Africans taking the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) adhere to their regimens much better than Americans or Europeans – the success rate is about 90%.

Though the pace has picked up tremendously in the past year, the fact remains that only 700,000 of the 6 million people world-wide in immediate need of ARVs have access to them. This is partly because of the price – the cheapest drugs are a dollar a day, but most Africans cannot afford this. It is also because of availability. In some places, only more expensive drugs are available, plus in many communities, there is not infrastructure or trained health care workers to monitor and administer the treatment. The scarcity of treatment results in doctors and families having to make the hardest choice of all – in the community, in the family, who will live and who will die.

Aids in Africa (Reuters/Radu Sigheti)
Young Maasai listen to their warrior chiefs during a graduation to manhood ceremony December 20, 2003 in Kisaju, 80 km (50 miles) east of Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
Taking control of the fight against AIDS in an unprecedented move, the warrior leaders pronounced changes in the centuries-old rules for sexual and social actions in order to stop the spread of the scourge among their people, a precedent which must be followed by all of the 400,000 Maasai and their Maa speaking neighbors.

Other Facts

– More than 300 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa—nearly half the population—live on less than $1 a day. This number is expected to rise to 345 million by 2015.

– Africa is home to five of the world’s fastest-growing low income countries– but also 34 of the world’s 49 poorest countries.

– Sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the world that is least likely to achieve the internationally agreed poverty reduction targets, known as the Millennium Development Goals.

– Per capita income in Africa is falling – in 2000 it was 10% below the 1980 level.