Zaire Leads Africa in Fight against AIDS
Robert M. Press, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
SUB-SAHARAN Africa, one of the world's poorest and least-educated regions, has more than half the world's estimated 6 million to 8 million cases of AIDS, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Most of the 2 million women WHO estimates will die of AIDS in this decade live in sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the hardest-hit countries are in Central and Eastern Africa. But in Zaire, a coordinated prevention campaign appears to be making progress.
The challenge is great. Besides the large number of deaths they attribute to AIDS, officials say the disease has serious economic consequences as well.
A study in Zaire estimated that annual loss of income because of illness was about $400 for an AIDS patient. (Per capita income in Zaire was about $170 in 1988, according to the World Bank and the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.) And since most income earners in Africa support large families, a patient's incapacity has an economic effect on many others.
With African economies practically stagnant at present, and per-person spending on health care ranging from only $1 to $10 a year, most African countries can not afford the extra burden of medical care for AIDS cases.
At the same time, many African countries have been slow to recognize the AIDS challenge and even slower to do something about it. But a few, including Uganda and Zaire, were quick to acknowledge the problem and are in the forefront in efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Prevention specialists in Zaire are claiming progress on two fronts: greater awareness among the public about AIDS and changes in sexual behavior that doctors say can reduce the risks of transmission.
"I feel progress is being made - a lot of progress," says Bill Martin of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an important funder of AIDS-prevention programs in Zaire. "The average person who lives in Kinshasa, Zaire, knows more about AIDS, how it is transmitted, how it is prevented, than the typical American," Mr. Martin claims.
In one of the most extensive educational campaigns in Africa, Zairians since 1987 have been blanketed with radio, television, poster, drama, and brochure messages about AIDS and how to prevent it.
"We look for creative ways to reach people,' says Julie Convisser, who heads a small AIDS-education team here for Population Services International (PSI), a private organization based in Washington. The program is funded by USAID.
DOCTORS say AIDS in Africa is most commonly spread through heterosexual sexual relations, often outside marriage. (In the US and Europe, on the other hand, experts say the disease has affected primarily homosexuals and intravenous drug users.)
The message of many church-sponsored and other AIDS-awareness campaigns is clear: The best prevention is premarital chastity and marital fidelity. …