Senegal Renews Its Campaign against Aids

By Matthew, Tamba-Jean,, III | Contemporary Review, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Senegal Renews Its Campaign against Aids

Matthew, Tamba-Jean,, III, Contemporary Review

IN contrast to most sub-Saharan African countries, Senegal's successful attempts to check the spread of HIV/AIDS have transformed the country into a model over the last two decades--a source of inspiration in the global fight against the epidemic.

Soon after the epidemic broke out, the then government--the country is now ruled by the Democratic Party of Senegal--speedily mounted a socialist-style public education strategy in 1984 that massively mobilised the population against the disease. The effort involved all levels of society, notably women's groups, faith-based organisations, government agencies, the private sector and the media.

According to UNAIDS, Senegal's decision to invest massively in HIV prevention-and-awareness programmes early in its epidemic when HIV infection rates were very low is 'still paying off'. At the end of 2001 the rate of infection among adults was 0.5 per cent, the UN agency says, (the government puts the current rate at 0.3 per cent). There were 24,000 adults living with HIV/AIDS in 2001, 14,000 of them women. Another 2,900 were children up to the age of fifteen.

This gives Senegal the lowest infection rate in sub-Saharan Africa--the world's worst-affected region. HIV prevalence rates in Botswana and Swaziland, for instance, are nearly 40 per cent. More than one in five pregnant women are HIV-infected in most countries of southern Africa, compared with one in hundred in Senegal--a figure that has held through 1990-2002, according to UNAIDS.

'When we launched the struggle in the early eighties, the situation was not very bad and since the phenomenon was new, we did everything to forestall the spread of the disease,' says Dr Abdel Kader Bacha, one of Senegal's leading AIDS activists.

'Our struggle is still going on unabated ... in educating the people about the disease and encouraging them to use condoms,' he adds. 'As a predominantly Muslim country, we have successfully involved religious communities and leaders in our struggle and their efforts are proving a success.'

Twenty years on Senegal is still having to battle against some die-hard attitudes, including risky sex behaviour among the young, whose reluctance to take AIDS tests--because of the societal stigma attached to HIV positive status--is raising tremendous concern.

'The problem is occurring throughout the country, but there is no reason for young people to be more afraid of being stigmatised than dying,' says Kaltoum Kamara, a social worker with ENDA Sante, a leading AIDS NGO. 'In fact if they are found to be HIV-positive, we are always available to assist them in every aspect of their lives.'

There are also risks associated with continuing polygamous marriages and clandestine sex-work in both rural and urban areas. According to UNAIDS, HIV prevalence among sex workers has increased slowly over the past decade.

The situation is exacerbated by uncoordinated local research efforts, the inability of the National AIDS Council to reach all sectors of society, especially those living in the remote and rural areas and duplication in the work among the twenty-five odd NGOs that are working on AIDS. All of this has prompted the government of Senegal to get more directly involved in the battle against AIDS.

One move by the government has been to take direct control of the National AIDS Council, which hitherto was run almost exclusively by local medical practitioners, by placing it directly under the Prime Minister's supervision. Government officials are tight-lipped about the exact reasons for the move, saying only that it is aimed at motivating 'a multi-sectoral response to the epidemic by directly involving government ministries, grassroots communities and the civil society'.

Katy Cisse Wone, the programme officer at the National AIDS Council, explains that the move was taken within the framework of an international agreement between the Economic Commission of Africa, a regional arm of the United Nations, and the UN Special Session on HIV/AIDS in 2001. …

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