I cannot describe the effect that HIV and AIDS have had on my life. I am a witness to the pandemic that swept Africa in the mid-late 80’s. It was a time of great turmoil, society was destabilised worse than during a war, yet there was hypocrisy and silence about it.
As a child, I learnt to look for the signs; looking gaunt, weight-loss, tuberculosis, sores and loss of appetite, I watched relatives die a slow death that no human should suffer.
Over 20 years later and the AIDS epidemic is nowhere near being arrested; UNAIDS/WHO estimated that in 2007 some 2.1 million people died of AIDS-related causes, 300,000 were children.
Those 2.1 million will leave 4 million children that can be classified as AIDS orphans. The loss to our skills and labour is colossal; the ripple effect is reflected in African GDP’s.
Sadly, cases of infection are up overall in East Africa, the numbers might be lower in Rwanda but the mass-movement of people in the EAC leaves us exposed to other nation’s risk. After initial success, a country like Uganda is experiencing a rise in infections; this is after a mass awareness programme and the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs (ARV’s).
There is a sense of complacency about HIV now, it is a life-lottery, if you can afford good healthcare you can live a normal life but most cannot afford that luxury. Among the urban elite in Uganda, HIV is like a cold—ARV’s are taken like cough mints.
Promiscuity is rife, both in Kigali and Kampala among all levels of society; the threat of AIDS is never in the minds of those who risk their lives.
A number of shocking misconceptions about AIDS still exist and are regularly accepted. That AIDS was invented by the CIA to limit the numbers of black people.
That AIDS is a myth created by white people to limit African populations. That AIDS is a curse from God for sin, what about children born with it, what sin did they commit? That taking a shower after sex with a HIV-infected person is sufficient to remove the virus.
That traditional spells and potions can remove the virus. That sex with a virgin can remove the virus from your system. These are all false yet some prominent and intelligent people believe them.
There are practical measures we can take, particularly in reducing mother-child infections. Medicines and hygienic birth conditions and procedures reduce the risk of infection. Sometimes mothers have no choice or mistakenly breastfeed their infants and infect them.
Women suffer the worst effects of the AIDS pandemic; as AIDS widows, as primary carriers, often having to adopt orphans of relatives, as well as being direct victims of the disease.
This World AIDS day, should be a reminder of the millions who have died, and the 33 million living with the virus. Let us ask ourselves what we are doing to make sure they didn’t die in vain.
If we all play our part, the scourge of HIV and AIDS can be banished forever; we have to be aware, responsible, and be ready to all care for those who have the disease.
Rama Isibo is a social commentator