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African Health Specialists Gather in Washington - 2003-07-01

Twenty medical and public health specialists met recently in Washington to learn more about how to deal with HIV/AIDS in their countries. They were sponsored by President Bush’s AIDS initiative and the State Department’s International VIsitor Program.

Thirteen of the specialists were from Africa. Three of them -- representing Cameroon, Namibia, and Sierra Leone -- shared their experiences with reporters.

There’s still a lot of work to be done in the fight against AIDS in Africa. That was the consensus of the three specialists. Peter Fonkwo is the resident advisor for the USAID project on family health and HIV/AIDS in Cameroon. He says treatment and prevention go hand in hand. "For sure," he says, "there is need for treatment out there. We can’t have a successful fight against AIDS if we don’t treat people. (and) you cannot talk to people about prevention if there is no treatment. The point is to insure that this treatment is correctly done, … I think there’s a lot of training, and infrastructural development to be organized in our countries to insure that drugs are correctly used. i think the decision by the President of the United States to insure that there is treatment is a very laudable one. And we hope that other countries will follow his example."

Lydia Kandetu, an environmental health officer for the Ongwendiva town council in Namibia, discussed public awareness of the problem.

She says, "I think the awareness is there, only what we need is to bring all the involvement of the whole society from the community up to the business sector to be able to tackle these issues. …. all the stakeholders should be involved from the businesses because currently, like in Namibia, the HIV is left only for the minister of health and local governments, so we want the involvement of all the stakeholders because it has an impact on all of the society."

Another participant, Samuel Kargbo, talked about prevention and abstinence. Mr. Kargbo is a district medical officer in Daru, Sierra Leone. He says targeting pupils and street children is important because they are young and impressionable. He also discussed cultural practices that can complicate AIDS prevention efforts -- for example, problems facing women in their communities.

He says, "Women have to prove their fertility to be married … and so they go out to have the first child to prove that they are fertile. Now before they get married, you have to reverse this by educating them on the necessity of the risk of that act, because there is no guarantee that once you prove your fertility you’re going to be married to somebody tomorrow. That pregnancy has other complications, like stopping your education, getting you out of work, which people undermine. But more and more with economic difficulties in our respective countries, it becomes a problem."

Each of the three public health specialists is assigned to a different area of the United States, where they will study effective prevention and treatment. They share the common goal of fighting a disease that is overwhelming -- particularly in sub-saharan Africa.

When the program is over, they want to go home and use their knowledge to help with efforts already underway to overcome the devastating cost of HIV/AIDS.