Africa Update: Good News in Fight Against AIDS

Farai Chiedya talks with NPR special Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault about the growing scope of AIDS in Africa, and obstacles to efforts to slow the spread of HIV on the continent.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

AIDS was introduced to the world 25 years ago. Now, a new United Nations report, offers both hope, and a sober look at the challenges in fighting this disease.

Infections are increasing at a slower rate, but AIDS researchers and activists had hoped that by now, they'd be decreasing. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, nearly 25 million people are living with AIDS.

For more, here's NPR's Farai Chideya, speaking with NPR's Special Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault, from Johannesburg, with this week's Africa update.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So, Charlayne, you were recently in the southeast African nation of Malawi. This U.N. report found that the HIV prevalence rate, there, remains close to 50 percent. So, who's fault is that? Aid agencies, the world community, Malawi's leaders?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT reporting:

Well, you know, I saw that report. But in Malawi, I talked to people involved with the AIDS pandemic there. And while it is horrendous, they're saying that the HIV rate has stabilized for the past 17 years at about 14 percent. And that there has been a big drop of four-tenths of a percent, and that the epidemic is flattening. And that they expect it to be dropping. So, you know, while that number is huge, there is some hope, at least among those working in the country.

CHIDEYA: And you spoke with a UNICEF official, Joyce(ph) Mufeya(ph), who says that Malawi's leaders are working to address the HIV crisis. Let's listen to what she had to say.

Ms. JOYCE MUFEYA (UNICEF Official): Yes, government has really taken the lead. Because, if you look at the issues of trying to mobilize, making access to services available, and all those things, government is really taking the lead. And then, also, with the political wheel and that thing. And then other stakeholders also in the forefront, in terms of NGOs and then a lot of partners. So I think it's a coordinated effort, but government is really taking the lead in the whole process.

CHIDEYA: Charlayne, tell us a little bit more about Joyce and her perspective.

HUNTER-GAULT: She was telling me that the government is expanding the rollout of antiretrovirals, a 35 percent jump in the coverage. Now that still leaves something like 46,000, or something like that, people who need the antiretrovirals. I think it's even at 85,000, need the antiretrovirals and 900,000 are living with AIDS, out of a population of 12 million.

But she was most hopeful, because there are a lot role-players, as they say, and stakeholders, involved in the pandemic. And the other thing that she was saying, was that the critical thing in Malawi right now, and I heard about this also in Losutu - which has a campaign that hasn't been a successful - but getting people to know their status is a major leap forward in the fight against AIDS. And she feels that they are making some headway in doing that, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Well, Charlayne, one thing that I'm not clear on, it seems as if the U.N. report says there's a much higher prevalence of AIDS than the government does. Is that correct?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there are different figures, and as I said before, you know, different people use different measurements. They use different ways of estimating the problem. And this - her statistics are different from the UNA's, but she is part of the U.N. Agency. And the point is, that no matter whose figures are right, what she says, based on the figures she has, is that they do expect this rate to be dropping because it has flattened.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's turn to some other areas in the continent. And, you know, you have such a great grasp of the continent because you've traveled so extensively throughout it. Zimbabwe: country that not a lot of good news is coming out of, but AIDS is an exception.

HUNTER-GAULT: The good news is that Zimbabwe is making a lot of headway in the fight against AIDS. And I happened to talk to some Zimbabweans who were - who had been in the country and were now in Malawi. And what they were saying to me was that Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to get out ahead with campaigns against AIDS, with, you know, promoting condoms and so forth - going back to 1993.

And that seems to be one of the most definitive things that governments can do. When they were able to get on top of this epidemic early, and then engage the community, the government, as well as the private sector - some good was done. And I think that this is the residual benefit of that early jump on the pandemic.

CHIDEYA: Now let's turn to Uganda. That nation made strong strides in the fight against AIDS. Is that continuing?

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, this is a real big disappointment. I was in Uganda several years ago. And this was the poster country for AIDS prevention. But apparently, what has happened is that with the Christian right's involvement - and with Uganda receiving a lot of aid from the United States - the abstinence part of the program has now taken over the condom usage and other aspects of their program.

So that you have religious people, including the wife of the president and others, saying that condoms are not good. That nobody should be using them. That they're sinful, that they're bad. And so, according to my sources, this is causing a renewal of new AIDS infections. Not a very pretty picture.

CHIDEYA: And, of course, the abstinence only versus condoms debate is also going on in the U.S. where the CDC, for example, has pulled back some of the information that it used to provide on its Web site about condoms. So it's not just an African issue.

HUNTER-GAULT: First of all, you've got impoverished people all over the continent. I've been working on a series on poverty. And what's so amazing is that no matter what aspect of poverty you choose, AIDS comes in and sideswipes it. It is permeating every layer of society and poverty is being exacerbated by this AIDS fight. And poor people are producing children. I mean, there's hardly anything else to do. You've got to be realistic about how you work with this pandemic.

CHIDEYA: Thanks so much for this report, Charlayne.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Farai.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with NPR's special Africa Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Charlayne's latest book is, New News Out of Africa.

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