- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The old adage that no news is good news, alas, does not apply to Africa.

Africa this past year has suffered fratricidal wars and devastating epidemics that continue to claim lives by the tens of thousands. Yet little news from Africa, if any, gets reported in the international media, and even less in the United States.

The continent remains rife with disasters — both created by man and as a result of poor or nonexisting health care, illiteracy, poverty, malnutrition and substandard norms of living.

Civil wars have been raging in the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Zimbabwe, and refugee crises abound in Angola, the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Tens of millions of people remain displaced as a result of decades of continued warfare, with numbers mounting daily.

In some countries such as Sudan and Niger, slavery continues to be practiced. In other parts of the continent, famine is always around the corner and life expectancy is the lowest in the world.

A report released Dec. 18 by the World Health Organization estimated life expectancy in Sierra Leone at 34 years — the lowest in the world. Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world at 81.9 years.

In the world today, of the 43 million people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, more than half, or 29.4 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 5 million people worldwide who will be infected with HIV this year, 3.5 million will be in Africa, where 58 percent of those who are HIV-positive are women.

In sub-Saharan Africa 17 million people have died of AIDS since the 1980s, and the disease continues to kill 5,000 adults and 1,000 children every day across the continent.

The horror and extent of the disease has brought promises of assistance from world leaders such as President Bush. But a combination of poverty, government inaction and corruption, myth and stigma continues to drive the epidemic to historic levels.

In Africa, 16 nations have disease-prevalence rates exceeding 10 percent — 20 times that of Western nations — but many governments continue to ignore the epidemic that fills hospital wards and results in millions of homeless orphans.

In South Africa, nearly 5 million people, or 15 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. Some 8,000 babies are born to HIV-infected mothers each month. Of those born with the infection, few live beyond age 4.

AIDS has claimed so many lives in South Africa that often people are buried vertically for lack of space in cemeteries.

“One has to consider Africa is mainly an agricultural society,” Dr. Thomas Quinn, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. “Seven million farmers have died due to AIDS. One has to ask: Who is farming the land?”

Farming is not the only area affected. “One also has to look at the educational process as well as the working process,” added Dr. Quinn, explaining that 85 percent of teacher deaths in South Africa over the past 20 years have been from AIDS.

“From the global perspective, the HIV epidemic has reversed many of the developmental gains that have been achieved in many areas of the world, particularly reversed those gains made over the last three decades,” Mr. Quinn said.

“There has been an economic decline, particularly on the continent of Africa, with estimates of that decline ranging from 10 percent to 40 percent — a staggering figure in an area that is already economically fragile.

“It has resulted in health system chaos, where in some places 50 [percent] to 70 [percent] to 80 percent of hospital beds may be occupied by HIV-infected people with increasing opportunistic infections, many of which go untreated. All of this results in a spiraling factor of political instability.”

At an International AIDS Society Conference in Paris, Jean-Paul Moatti, professor of economics at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseilles, France, warned that if the epidemic continues at its current pace, within four generations the economy of South Africa will be halved by AIDS.

Young girls — even children under age 5 — often are raped by older men, purportedly because of a widespread myth that sex with a virgin can cure or prevent AIDS.

Karl Peltzer, a research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council in Cape Town, South Africa, said the myth — as well as other aberrant sexual behavior — and the pursuit of young women by older men “has led to a disproportionate number of young girls becoming infected with HIV.”

The culture of some African communities exacerbates the problem.

In some societies, if the husband dies, the husband’s relatives take all the family possessions — including the home and savings, leaving the widow and her children destitute and homeless. The only alternative for many women and many children is commercial sex work, which spreads the epidemic.

“Africa is where AIDS has entrenched itself in the last two to three decades, and is still spiraling out of control. The spread of HIV continues relentlessly across the continent,” Dr. Quinn said.

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