How Bad Is AIDS in Africa?
By Awake! correspondent in Africa
LIKELY you heard the predictions. They were spine chilling. Millions on the continent of Africa would get AIDS. Human immune systems would collapse, leaving the body’s natural defenses open to the invasion of horrific diseases. As was true of the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the 14th century, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale would follow.
Then there was a lull. The media were saturated, and the public grew weary of sensational doomsday predictions. Was it really going to be that bad? Exactly what is the true extent of the AIDS epidemic in Africa?
“Nobody knows what the future figures are going to be,” says AIDS researcher Dr. Andre Spier. But he is not optimistic. “The number will be substantial and highly destructive to the whole of society.” Similarly, at a 1988 international AIDS conference in Stockholm, Sweden, Dr. Lars Kallings predicted that “in only a couple of years . . . [there] will be a frightening body count.”
More than “a couple of years” have passed since that forecast. Now many of the predictions are ominously on target. Statistics are starting to turn up as corpses. And the worst is yet to come.
The Dead and the Dying
A swath of death and destruction is being cut across many parts of sub-Saharan Africa. “In certain urban centres,” says a recent report in the scientific magazine Nature, “AIDS is now the leading cause of mortality in adults and one of the main determinants of infant mortality.” In one African city, priests are hard-pressed to cope with the scores of AIDS-related funerals they have to conduct.
In October 1991 the heads of Commonwealth governments who met in Harare, Zimbabwe, were presented with a foreboding memorandum on AIDS in Africa. It was revealed that between 50 and 80 percent of all hospital beds in some African countries were currently occupied by AIDS patients. Concerning hard-hit Uganda, AIDS specialist Dr. Stan Houston revealed that AIDS has already killed more people in Uganda than were killed throughout the last 15 years of civil war in that country.
Equally disquieting are the findings by doctors and scientists in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Over a period of several months, all the corpses at the two largest city morgues were examined. The result? Science magazine, which carried the report, revealed that AIDS was found to be “the leading cause of death” among adult men in Abidjan. The journal adds that the figures quoted “probably underestimate the true mortality due to HIV [Human Immunodeficiency Virus] infection.”
Even WHO (World Health Organization), which monitors the worldwide spread of the disease, agrees that this is only the tip of the iceberg. According to the journal New Scientist, WHO “is convinced that many countries in East and Central Africa have reported only about a tenth of the cases of AIDS . . . Reporting is incomplete and inaccurate because surveillance is rudimentary.”
One terrifying thing about AIDS is the long period of infection that precedes the actual physical symptoms of full-blown AIDS. For up to ten years, the infected carrier may harbor deadly HIV in his body. He may look and feel healthy. Unless the victim has undergone a test for the disease, he will never know that he faces terminal illness—until the symptoms strike! It is this seemingly healthy, yet infected, segment of the population that is unwittingly spreading AIDS.
Tests for HIV infection levels reveal the extent to which the lethal plague is now unleashing itself on Africa. The journal African Affairs, for example, shows that the “densely populated region along Lake Victoria . . . reports high [HIV] prevalence . . . , ranging anywhere from 10 to 18 per cent for adults judged to be at low or average risk to 67 per cent for those with a large number of sexual partners.” Similarly, the journal Nature estimated that “in the general adult population, infection has spread steadily since 1984, reaching 20-30% in the worst-afflicted urban centres.” Imagine—almost a third of the adult population under sentence of death within ten years!
Governments and leaders, once reluctant to reveal the extent of AIDS, are now waking up to the full horror of the epidemic. A former African president gave his sanction to the fight against AIDS—after his own son died from it. Another government leader recently warned that there were 500,000 HIV-infected persons in his country. Most of these did not know they were fatally ill and were spreading the scourge by their promiscuous behavior.
“Tell Them What Has Happened Here”
As the percentage of people afflicted with HIV infection rises steadily, the number that eventually get extremely sick and die will increase dramatically. In their wake they will leave untold grief and suffering. On the AIDS-ravaged Uganda-Tanzania border, it happened to 59-year-old Khamlua. Since 1987 he has buried 11 of his children and grandchildren—all victims of AIDS. “Take my complaints out into the world,” he cries, shattered by the disaster. “Tell them what has happened here.”
Because of the very methods by which AIDS is spread, what happened to Khamlua in Africa threatens to happen in many other parts of the world. ‘But,’ you may ask, ‘why is Africa bearing the brunt of so much human misery and suffering?’
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In some developing countries, “by 1993, AIDS will be the single largest cause of deaths.”—The World Today, England