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Carter / AIDS - 2002-03-13

Former US President Jimmy Carter was in Nigeria this past weekend to draw attention to the need for comprehensive strategies to fight HIV/AIDS. Mr. Carter and the father of Microsoft’s owner, Bill Gates, Sr., are on a three-nation Africa tour. Speaking in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, former President Carter said the aim of the mission is to call attention to the need for the right resources and policies to stop the transmission of HIV and other crippling diseases. He expressed disappointment over the way some African governments are handling the HIV/AIDS pandemic - citing South Africa as an example. Mr. Carter says the South African approach is far from encouraging. He accuses the country’s leaders of not doing enough to control the spread of the disease.

“There is no nationwide advertising program,” said Mr. Carter. “The President of South Africa has assumed the responsibility for leading the nation. There is no organized effort among the different states or provinces to promote the control of AIDS. I was very disappointed in South Africa.” In Nigeria, Mr. Carter added, “there is no doubt that President Obasanjo has taken the leadership not only in his country but also in assembling leaders from other nations in Africa. There is a real difference.”

The former US President said it’s the commitment of national leaders that makes the difference in some African countries where the spread of the disease has been controlled significantly. For example, he said that Senegal has never had more than a one percent incidence of AIDS. On the other hand, he said Uganda’s once high rate of growth for AIDS declined once President Museveni took a leadership role in fighting the disease. In Nigeria, Mr. Carter added, “ the dynamic leadership of the President is as good as any top leadership I have seen.”

Mr. Carter said the notion that poverty in Africa is largely responsible for the widespread reach of the disease is not totally acceptable. He said countries poorer than Nigeria or South Africa have done well in their efforts to control the spread of HIV/AIDS. He said they’ve done this with comprehensive education programs that encourage the use condoms. Some provide condoms either free or at a very low cost. The delegation took part in a HIV/AIDS summit on Saturday and later met with President Obasanjo and other government and political leaders, as well as health workers, volunteers, commercial sex workers, and people living with AIDS. Bill Gates Snr. said HIV/AIDS poses the greatest challenge that mankind has had to face in several lifetimes.

“When we were meeting with the sex workers this morning,” said Mr. Gates, “ I couldn’t help but ask them whether or not any of them had seen a friend or relative died of AIDS, because I have seen that. And if you think that there is anything friendly or insignificant about HIV AIDS, just bring up your own recollection of your experiences in watching your own friend die of that horrible disease slowly, disintegrating and wasting away to die.”

Mr. Gates said support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Fund depends on the nature of commitment shown by a country’s leadership and the will of its people to fight the disease.

He said, “The other straightforward fact is that if we are going to deal with [AIDS successfully], country by country, state by state, city by city, it will be because in those places, the leadership cared. The leadership had the courage to be candid about the subject matter. The leadership had the courage and the commitment to say we are not going to give in to the disease. “

Current Nigerian Health Department figures show that 5.8 percent of the population is infected with the virus. During the forum, President Obasanjo said that Nigeria will re-consider its strategies to reverse the worsening HIV/AIDS pandemic. President Obasanjo aid that by the end of the forum “ we would have refocused our strategies, and we would have planned to take our programs to every nooks and corners to achieve the stated objectives. There will be no part of Nigeria and no community that will be left out without a program and without the awareness of the deadliness of HIV/AIDS.”

The delegation also met with commercial sex workers in Mabushi, outside of Abuja. They discussed safety standards, such as the use of condoms. The Advisor on HIV/AIDS to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr. Helene Gayle, says the Foundation has spent more than 450 million dollars on HIV/AIDS activities and prevention work in Africa. She says the money is being spent in a variety of ways, including vaccine development and creating new tools and technologies to help stop the spread of HIV.