Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, a day first observed in 1988, to bring awareness to HIV and AIDs.
Africa remains the region with the highest number of cases in the world. HIV infection is mostly confined to the poorest people. It is not simply that information, education, and counseling are unlikely to reach the poor, but that such messages are often irrelevant and inoperable given the reality of their lives. Even if the poor understand what they are being urged to do, it is rarely the case that they have either the incentive or the resources to adopt the recommended behaviors.
Studies show South Africa in particular has the highest rate of HIV in the world, with 7.7 million people living with HIV today. HIV prevalence among the general population is 20.4%. Prevalence is even higher among men who have sex with men, transgender women, sex workers, and people who inject drugs. Despite ongoing progress, 65,000 of the region's children and adolescents died of an AIDS-related cause in 2017.
We asked our health expert Dipuo Mankheli, a lifelong resident of South Africa, to share how HIV/AIDs has impacted the country she calls home.
Stone Hill: Have you or anyone you’ve known personally been impacted by HIV/AIDS? If so, how? How prevalent is it, in your view?
Dipuo: Yes, some of my very close relatives and friends contracted this disease at a time when no medication was available. My friends had been in and out of hospitals with false diagnoses and medications — even with symptoms clearly showing that they were HIV positive until the virus was full-blown, leaving them to die. After researching when Antiretroviral drugs were available 30 years ago, it really saddened me that they were only available for the privileged, leaving the disadvantaged, including my friends, to die.
Stone Hill: How often is it talked about in Africa?
Dipuo: Well, it has been something that carries a lot of stigma and is difficult to talk about. The World Health Organization has created awareness and people have started to get more in depth education about HIV/AIDS and how to prevent it. Many people started disclosing their status and more and more voluntarily underwent HIV/AIDS tests and once tested positive, they started attending programs that would prepare them for lifelong change. South Africa still has the highest rate of people living with HIV/AIDS with over 7.5 million.
Stone Hill: As a mother of young children, what precautions do you take to prevent HIV? Does the thought of the illness concern you?
Dipuo: This has been my concern for years, even before having children. This pandemic was so rife that not only could one contract it through sexual intercourse, but other forms of blood transfusion. I always encourage people, especially teenagers in my neighbourhood, to either abstain from sex until they are ready or use condoms to prevent unplanned pregnancies. This has been broadcasted all over social media and TV stations as well. In South Africa, another concern is that 2 out of 5 children are being raped on a daily basis, which exposes them to this viral disease.
Stone Hill: How has AIDS changed in Africa in your lifetime? Have you noticed any changes the country has made to combat AIDS/HIV?
Dipuo: There have been a lot of changes as HIV/AIDS awareness has been marketed and promoted in all social media platforms, banners, billboards and flyers circulating all over our health institutions/clinics. People know and understand what this disease is all about as it is always a talk of a day — especially in places where there are gatherings. The government has also played an excellent role in distributing and allocating Antiretroviral drugs for free for those with no health insurance. Now it is up to us.
Stone Hill: Is there more that needs to be done in your country, in your opinion? How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted HIV/AIDS?
Dipuo: There will always be more that needs to be done, particularly in rural areas. These are areas where people still need more educational programs with regard to HIV/AIDS. More people in those areas have limited resources, they have to travel miles and miles away by foot to health clinics and they still live under very poor states of health and surroundings. Women and children are the victims of daily rape and abuse as they use their bodies for survival to provide food for their families. Sexual precautions are not even an option in these areas, thereby increasing the high rate of teenage pregnancies and other sexual related diseases.
*There is no cure for AIDs. Factors that enhance the spread of HIV transmission include migration, economic instability, social and environmental factors, drug use, increased rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and poverty.
Thank you Dipuo Mankheli and Katy Savage