Thursday, May 10, 2012

The AIDS Epidemic & Necessity of Improved Health Care and Sex Education in Africa

According to AVERT, an international HIV & AIDS charity, at the end of 2010, an estimated 34 million people were living with the HIV/AIDS virus worldwide.  Of these 34 million, nearly 23 million were living in the Sub-Saharan Africa region.  That’s two-thirds of the entire infected community, in an area that only accounts for approximately twelve percent of the total world population.  The AIDS virus began plaguing the African continent in the 1980s, and has continued to do so over the subsequent three decades, spurred mainly by a lack of proper sexual education and access to sufficient health care in the area.

Image from AVERT
Over the past 
ten years, the  number of people living with AIDS around the world has increased dramatically by an approximate 26 million.  However, recently, "the overall growth of the epidemic has stabilised." This is due mostly to antiretroviral therapy being developed as a way to stop the deterioration of the immune system and aid in the body’s recovering process.  This new development in health care has been both helpful and surprisingly harmful to people living in the Sub-Saharan African nations.  While this treatment exists, there is still only a very small population in the region that has access to it.  Another unfortunate effect of the therapy’s discovery is the increase in the idea that contracting the AIDS virus is no longer as big of a deal as it once was because an infected person is not guaranteed to die.  It may seem crazy for people to think this, but in an area where education about sex and sexuality is subpar, it’s completely normal.
Image from AVERT
                      In no way is the HIV/AIDS virus limited to adults, and this fact rings especially true in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Each day, more than one thousand children (under the age of fifteen) are newly infected with the disease worldwide, and nearly ninety percent of the total population of children currently living with the disease are from Sub-Saharan African countries.  The United States, over the past three decades has seen substantial decreases in AIDS infection of very young people.  This is due to the fact that we have many people who work in hospitals dedicated to caring for babies, children, and adolescents who have the disease.  One such person is Dr. Ellen Gould Chadwick, who I was able to see speak at a college graduation recently.  She has been working with infectious diseases in children and adolescents since the late 1970s, and while she boasts the progress American’s have made over the years, she recognizes the lack of similar progress in Africa. 

There are two main problems with sexual education in Africa.  One is the lack of comprehensive sex education in African schools, and the other is the absence of African parents in their children’s education about sex.  Both of these things can be held accountable for there being no decrease in the rate of spread of the HIV/AIDS virus in Africa.

           Image from AVERT

It’s truly no secret that former President George W. Bush supported the instruction of abstinence-only sex education in schools in the United States.  During his time in office, Bush strongly pushed for funding of abstinence-only sex education, and then proceeded to carry this thinking into overseas ‘missions’ to provide education about sex to children in African schools.  This method of education is known as "the 'ABC'-approach, meaning Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms."  Teaching children that abstinence, faithful relationships, and use of condoms is the only way to avoid pregnancy, STDs, and STIs is great in theory, but very poor in practice.  As Jonathan G. Silin put it, "when the topic of AIDS is sanitized, teachers and students are protected from the truly unhealthy aspects of society that might otherwise be revealed" (Silin 56).  Why else does Sub-Saharan Africa still harbor about sixty-eight percent of the HIV positive population? Take the country of Uganda, located in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example.  In this country, it’s completely normal for a woman to have a sexual relationship outside of her ‘monogamous’ one.  "'Side dish', 'spare tire' or 'side mirror' are all common terms in Uganda referring to an extra, non-regular sexual partner…[and] the terminology itself already betrays a sense of casual normality attributed to the phenomenon."  Also, in the case of other African nations, women who are completely faithful in their marriages are infected by unfaithful partners.  It just doesn’t make sense, and it obviously isn’t effective to preach abstinence in a country where such a policy itself is "…at odds with the patterns of sexual behaviour in the country."

Image from The Discerning Brute
    "If sex education is going                   to be effective it needs to include opportunities for young people to develop skills, as it can be hard for them to act on the basis of only having information."  This describes the basic concept and advantage of the comprehensive sex education approach that needs to be employed in Africa.  We can’t stop every person from having sex outside of marriage, or from having sex at all, but we can teach him or her how to responsibly and safely handle sex and relationships.  According to the journal article "Education and risky sex in Africa: Unraveling the link between women’s education and reproductive health behaviors in Kenya", the most recent studies on sex education have shown that it actually causes "decreases [in] the likelihood of riskier sex-related behaviors" (Adamczyk, and Greif 654-66).  During his presidency, Bill Clinton strongly advocated comprehensive sex education in Africa, which included instruction and information about contraceptives and abortion.  In the years of this advocacy, the country of Uganda saw a far-reaching decrease in new HIV/AIDS transmission cases.

Comprehensive sexual education in African schools does not stand alone as the only way to help stop the growing AIDS epidemic.  Part of the problem also lies within the African family and its values.  While access to sex education in schools is increasing in Africa, sex education at home continues to be virtually nonexistent.  In the U.S., the vast majority of children grow up learning a lot about sex, relationships, and everything that goes along with them from their parents.  By contrast, in most of Africa, parental teachings of such things are considered completely taboo.  This presents a major difficulty because a great deal of what children learn about sex comes from the relationships they witness in their daily lives, the most prominent relationship being that of their parents.  And these relationships certainly aren’t always positive models.  In order for children to be educated, parents need to be educated.   Parents need to be open and willing to listen to the facts surrounding the HIV/AIDS problem, and then incorporate those facts into teaching their kids about sex, sexuality, and how to have safe and healthy relationships.

Image from AVERT
   A more compre-
hensive sex education being employed by both schools and families in Africa will be a tremendous help in the fight of the HIV/AIDS in the area.  However, the foundation for reducing, and possibly eliminating this problem in the future, lies in Africa’s health care.  In South Africa, the health care deficiency is also an issue of inequality.  Apartheid, which was the rigid policy of segregation of [South Africa's] nonwhite population, ended in 1994, almost twenty years ago, and still, for the most part, the only people who receive proper medical care are the ones who can pay for it.  Unfortunately, with respect to the AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa, those who cannot pay for adequate health care are the ones who truly need it.  Sanjay Basu attributes the lack of health care to the loss of funding due to drastic privatization by post-apartheid, South African president Thabo Mbeki, pointing out that, "[p]eople in poor areas could not pay for privatized health care. The public hospitals closed, and the private hospitals became more concentrated in places where more people could pay."  Similar public health care insufficiency trends are evident throughout all of Sub-Saharan Africa.  Without public hospitals in convenient locations, there is nowhere for people to get tested for HIV/AIDS, as well as other STIs and STDs, to prevent their spread.  Furthermore, there is also nowhere for already infected Africans to receive antiretroviral treatment or any other kind of care for their disease.  President Mbeki, as shown in the video below, is also well-known for the accusations of activists in South Africa against him, claiming that he is attempting to promote herbal remedies as a treatment for AIDS; not exactly the best track record. 

Image from Wall Street Journal
The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa is apparent, as are the possible solutions to this problem.  The United States needs to continue supporting comprehensive sex education instruction in every African nation, particularly those south of the Sahara.  In addition to childhood education, these programs also need to include parental education.  We need to persuade the governments, both American and African—but especially American—to increase funding of public hospitals and create free clinics.  There are currently 14 million people worldwide who are eligible for treatment, the majority of whom live on the continent of Africa.  Presently, only around 4 million people are receiving proper treatment and therapy for the disease, the majority of whom do not live on the continent of Africa.  There has been a recent curb in funding by the United States, and this is unacceptable.  Such funding cuts will only lead to increased death and infection rates by the HIV/AIDS virus in Africa.  Several years ago, Congress authorized $48 billion to be used in the African effort by the year 2013, and it is essential for the U.S. government to do so.  As Michael Allen stated in his Wall Street Journal article, "[t]he human tragedy that is nearly upon us is significant and I believe [it] will be a huge disservice to the people of the United States because we will be unable to keep humanitarian commitments we have made.

Print Works Cited

Adamczyk, Amy, and Meredith Greif. "Education And Risky Sex In Africa: Unraveling The Link Between Women's Education And Reproductive Health Behaviors In Kenya." Social Science Research 40.2 (2011): 654-666. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 May 2012.

Silin, Jonathan G. Sex, Death, and the Education of Children: Our Passion for Ignorance in the Age of AIDS. New York : Teachers College, 1995. 56. Print.