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African HIV Experts to Discuss Community-Level Responses to AIDS - 2001-12-07

Doctors and experts from throughout Africa are preparing to meet in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, on Sunday for an International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases, or STD's, in Africa. Delegates will be discussing ways in which Africans can work at the community level to combat the growing epidemic.

Africa is by far the region worst hit by AIDS. In a report this month, the United Nations said well over half of the people living with HIV in the world are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The report says the virus continues to spread fast. Sixty-eight-percent of new cases of HIV infection in 2001 occurred in the region.

With 2.3 million people dead last year from AIDS and 28 million others infected with the virus that causes it, the United Nations calls HIV the most serious threat to development on the continent.

Like earlier conferences on AIDS, this meeting in Ouagadougou will focus on the availability of new, low cost drugs to battle the disease. Among those attending is Dr. Marc Aguirre, who runs the Hope Worldwide assistance center for HIV-positive people in Abidjan. Dr. Aguirre, who has been to a number of conferences on fighting the spread of AIDS in Africa, said he is encouraged by what he says is a new approach that will be taken at the meeting in Ouagadougou. "Typically at these large conferences, one can get totally lost [in discussions on] what the first world is doing, and yet we know that essentially AIDS is decimating the Third World, particularly Sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "So, the focus of this conference will be on looking at what communities at a local level can do."

While much of the conference will center on the debate over the availability of low cost drugs, Dr. Aguirre said discussion of community-level action to battle the effects of the disease is important. The reality, he said, is that many of the poor patients he works with would not be able to afford the drugs, at any cost. "We hear of fancy new treatments. We hear of strategies and therapies that are really only available in the first world," he said. "As much as we desire to have them made accessible here, they're often out of reach. A lot of the treatments that are now available in the first world and that are being developed as first lines of therapies will not be available here for a long, long time to come. So, we've got to depend much more heavily on what is available, and what we can do to develop those responses."

Dr. Aguirre says some communities have begun coping with the disease through education to overcome stigmas attached to AIDS. That, he says, has led to more families taking care of their sick, whereas before, patients would often be banished if it became known that they had AIDS. In Abidjan, where health officials say the HIV infection rate is above 10 percent, neighborhood groups have organized collections to pay for basic medical costs, funerals, and orphans' school supplies. Advocates say a key next step is that people in the region must assume greater responsibility for treatment of the disease, rather than relying on solutions from outside.