UN reports gains in the global fight against AIDS

There is more good news in the area of public health. A couple of days ago I posted on the decline of human mortality rates in the tropics. Now the UN agency for HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, reports that HIV infection rates, especially of the mother-to-child variety, are on a downward trend.

The New York Times reports:

New infections with H.I.V. have dropped by half in the past decade in 25 poor and middle-income countries, many of them in Africa, the continent hardest hit by AIDS, the United Nations said Tuesday.

The greatest success has been in preventing mothers from infecting their babies, but focusing testing and treatment on high-risk groups like gay men, prostitutes and drug addicts has also paid dividends, said Michel Sidibé, the executive director of the agency U.N.AIDS.

Adding that:

Some regions, like Southern Africa and the Caribbean, are doing particularly well, while others, like Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East, are not. Globally, new infections are down 22 percent from 2001, when there were 3.2 million. Among newborns, they fell 40 percent, to 330,000 from 550,000.

Life expectancy in Kenya jumps to 64

The Daily Nation reports:

The life expectancy of a Kenyan has increased to 64 years up from 55 two years ago, a report released on Sunday shows.

The data compiled by the University of Nairobi in partnership with 12 other universities worldwide notes that the life of Kenyans has improved substantially and they can expect to live longer.

The report, State Of The Tropics, further says that Zimbabwe is the only nation in the world that recorded a decline in life expectancy at 47 years.

Madagascar reported the largest improvement in life expectancy to 65.8 years, with large reductions in infant and adult mortality rates.

…. In regional terms, Zimbabwe has a low infant mortality rate, but a very high adult mortality rate (the highest in the world)

Overall, there has been massive improvement in life expectancy in the tropics since the fifties:

…. life expectancy in the tropics has increased by 22.8 years to 64.4 years between 1950 and 2010 and the gap between the life expectancy of women and men has widened in favour of women over the same period.

I guess this calls for an investigation of the real causes of the drop (if the data hold up) in mortality rates (especially infant mortality). Is it better healthcare, diet or just a natural secular trend? Or could it be better economic prospects (since the mid-1990s) that inspire greater investment in healthcare? Also, has the AIDS epidemic peaked in the tropics? Over to you, epidemiologists.

It is a bit odd that a country like Zimbabwe has a low infant mortality rate but a high adult mortality rate – why has the total collapse of state institutions disproportionately affected health provision to adults?

The Catholic Church and AIDS: A Sorry Case of Denial

The Church’s continued ostrich approach to the catastrophe that is HIV/AIDS on the continent:

Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday signed off on an African roadmap for the Roman Catholic Church that calls for good governance and denounces abuses, while labelling AIDS a mainly ethical problem. Benedict signed the apostolic exhortation called “The Pledge for Africa” during a visit to the West African nation of Benin, his second trip to the continent as pontiff.

The document says AIDS requires a medical response, but is mainly an ethical problem.

Changes in behaviour are required to combat the disease, including sexual abstinence and rejection of promiscuity, it adds. “The problem of AIDS in particular clearly calls for a medical and a pharmaceutical response,” it says. “This is not enough however. The problem goes deeper. Above all, it is an ethical problem.”

More on this from the Daily Nation.

I have written against the Church’s policy on birth control here, here and here.

More good news on the fight against AIDS

AIDS researchers, many of whom have been meeting this week in Rome under the auspices of the International AIDS Society, are rightly pleased with the progress they have made. In particular, the use of antiretroviral drugs has not only revolutionised treatment of HIV infection, but also offers the prospect of stopping the spread of the virus. In a matter of weeks, these drugs reduce the number of viruses per millilitre of infected blood from millions to less than 50. That deals with both symptoms and infectivity. Unless a patient stops taking the drugs, or goes on to develop resistance to them, he can expect to live almost as long as an uninfected individual.

……. there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. To deal with dormant viruses several researchers are taking what sounds like a counterintuitive approach. They are trying to wake the viruses up and so boost, rather than reduce, the amount of active HIV in a patient’s body. Their reasoning is that the now-active viruses will either kill the cells they are in (and thus themselves) or encourage the immune system to attack those cells.

That is the Economist in its latest issue. For more on the details of the state of AIDS research go here.

The Economist’s optimism is supported by empirical data. According to the Vancouver Sun:

HIV patients in Uganda who are receiving regular treatment can expect to live a near-normal lifespan, Canadian researchers have suggested in the world’s first large-scale study to examine HIV patients’ life expectancy in Africa.

After studying 22,315 patients who were using combined antiretroviral therapy (cART), scientists from the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS along with experts at the Universities of British Columbia and Ottawa found that with early initiation and access to regular treatment, those infected with HIV were living about two-thirds of a normal lifespan.

More on this here.

 

Can the fight against aids be won?

There is hope that the fight against AIDS can be won.

Over the last 30 years the disease has killed millions and created millions of orphans.

It’s lasting impact persists in lost human capital and reduced labor productivity (see paper on this here). But if the optimism of the Economist (and they are not known for their love of the bright side of things) is anything to go by, things might be changing for the better.

The 30th anniversary of the disease’s discovery has been taken by many as an occasion for hand-wringing. Yet the war on AIDS is going far better than anyone dared hope. A decade ago, half of the people in several southern African countries were expected to die of AIDS. Now, the death rate is dropping. In 2005 the disease killed 2.1m people. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the number was 1.8m. Some 5m lives have already been saved by drug treatment. In 33 of the worst-affected countries the rate of new infections is down by 25% or more from its peak.

Even more hopeful is a recent study which suggests that the drugs used to treat AIDS may also stop its transmission (see article). If that proves true, the drugs could achieve much of what a vaccine would. The question for the world will no longer be whether it can wipe out the plague, but whether it is prepared to pay the price.

More on this here.

mbeki’s legacy

Partial results of Thabo Mbeki’s beetroot response to the South African AIDS epidemic are out. Life expectancy in South Africa declined between 1990-2007 (from 62 to 50). It is expected to decline even further over the next few years. Read more about this here.

It is worth noting that the new South African administration took an about-turn from Mbeki’s bizarre AIDS policy, as was articulated by his health minister. The South African Ministry of Health has on its website an HIV and AIDS and STI strategic plan designed to tackle the HIV problem. Over 5 million South Africans, out of a total population of 49.3 million, are infected.

i still don’t get how the church justifies this

The Catholic Church, among other churches, continues to be opposed to birth control measures that also help in the prevention of AIDS. This is such a disappointment. Millions of people have died from the disease since its emergence in the 1980s. Currently there are more than 20 million infected people on the Continent, and 11 million orphans as a result of HIV-related deaths. Clearly this is a situation that calls for a rethink of the Church’s policy on the use of condoms.

This is separate from the abortion debate. This is about disease prevention. I find it hard to reconcile church teachings of love with the heartless condemnation of millions to their graves. Now, individuals can make their own decisions regarding whether to engage in unprotected sex or not. But I also think that it matters if their priest or pastor tells them to do so. As long as the church is against AIDS prevention (yes, refusal to allow condom use amounts to being against AIDS prevention) government efforts to tame the disease will continue to founder.

It is easy for moralists perched up in far off places to dictate to their faithfuls on the Continent that they should not use birth control or protect themselves against AIDS. But African governments should know better than to stand by and let this be. They are the ones who are losing hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, engineers, civil servants and most importantly PARENTS every year. Millions of children are left orphaned and therefore a burden to the state. Rome or the evangelical churches will never have to deal with the losses that these governments have to deal with as a result.

There is a huge disconnect between the church and the realities on the ground on the Continent. The fact of the matter is that people are having sex outside of wedlock. The church (and even the state) should have good reasons to worry about this (the concern here being the hordes of unplanned pregnancies, especially among teenagers). But the best way to deal with it is not to preach abstinence and then pretend that people will listen. Governments and the church should be aggressive with ALL preventive measures. Once the disease is down to negligible levels then perhaps we can revive the moralizing crusades. Now is simply not the time.

africa still remains the land of disease, not investment

I am a fan of Business Week magazine. I like the magazine’s short but informative pieces on the state of the world’s economy, especially in these harsh economic times. However, being an ardent Africanist, I am often disappointed by how little coverage there is of the Continent in the magazine. This week’s piece had articles mostly from the US, Europe and Asia – with a few mentions of Latin America, notably Brazil. Africa was nowhere to be seen in terms of investment or economic performance. And this is not just the case with BW. Africa is still largely irrelevant when it comes to global economics – irrelevant in the sense that, with the exception of South Africa, it remains a passive player, being a mere source of raw materials for other regions of the world.

I wonder if anyone in the Continent’s state houses reads any of these international publications. I wonder how many of them look at The Economist’s Middle East and Africa section and hit their heads against the wall thereafter. May be they do, but just don’t give a rat’s behind or don’t know how to begin tackling their nations’ many problems. These are the same clowns who oftentimes complain about the Continent’s negative press. While I agree with them to a point, I think most of the negative press that the Continent gets is well deserved. It is true that way too many African children die before they are five. It is true that most of Africa is still in the 16th century. It is also true that most African leaders are visionless kleptocrats. And most importantly, it is true that Africa remains poor and, objectively speaking, backward not because of her people’s shortcomings but because of poor leadership. Where there is good leadership – like in Botswana and more recently in Mozambique and Tanzanaia – we have seen good things happen.

The Continent has to stop being a spectator in global politico-economic issues. But this will only happen if its leaders take their jobs more seriously. Less sleaze and arbitrary government will definitely help.

Kenya sees HIV prevalence rate drop, more needs to be done

The government has announced a drop in the HIV prevalence rate in Kenya from a high 14% to a relatively low 5%. These figures were announced by Prof. Were, the chairperson of the National Aids Control Council. Prof. Were also added that the number of people on ARVs had increased from a paltry 2000 five years ago to 150,000 in 2007.

This is good news. However, a lot more needs to be done. West African countries like Senegal have showed that with government commitment and cultural changes the scourge of AIDS can be kept at bay.

Among things that ought to change are traditional practices that belong in the pre-AIDS era. I am talking about wife inheritance in my home province of Nyanza and sharing of material during communal circumcisions across the country. Other areas to be looked at are religious practices and teachings that may encourage the spread of the disease. Being a Catholic, I am embarrassed by my church’s insistence that people should not use condoms even as they die like flies from this terrible malady. The government should talk straight with the church on this issue and require them not to preach from the pulpits anything that might jeopardize the success of the national anti-AIDS campaign.

Kenyans also need to change certain social practices. A friend of mine told me that when she visited Africa – South Africa and Swaziland – she was struck by the utter lack of faithfulness among couples. This might explain the high AIDS prevalence rates in Southern Africa and is also true in East Africa. Kenyans need to be more responsible with their sexuality by planning well with regards to matters sexual. The government and interested groups ought to be more aggressive in their family planning and sexual education initiatives in order to ensure that the gains that have been made in the last six years are improved upon.

I believe that with a concerted effort from the government, churches and cultural icons – like the Ker in Luo Nyanza for instance – Kenya can achieve a prevalence rate of less than 1% in the not so distant future. The majority Muslim countries of West Africa have managed to have low infection rates with little resources and so can we in the East, and possibly lend our ideas to the Southerners who are the worst affected by this scourge.

the church and aids in africa: some inconvenient truths

It is quite a shame that the church is somewhat contributing to the spread of the HIV virus on the continent of Africa. Church leaders, especially of the Catholic variety, have always maintained that the use of contraceptives – including condoms – is against the will of God. Given Africans’ religiosity and respect for these men of God, many of them have ended up not using any form of protection or contraceptives while having sex. The result has been the very high fertility and HIV infection rates on the continent.

African governments have been fighting the AIDS scourge with very costly campaigns while turning a deaf year to the churches.Because in most cases the churches are the ones that provide much needed public goods and social services, they’ve come to have a stronger grip on the people’s minds and hearts than the government. It is therefore a no brainer that even on the life and death issue of condom use they tend to listen more to the men of God than to Caesar.

This should not be the case. To echo Wole Soyinka, “Even in a purely theocratic state, there comes a point – surely – at which the state must restrict clerical interference in clearly scientific matters, most especially where human well being and survival are at issue.” Although the percentage of those infected because of their religious persuasions may be small, the fact is that their infection is preventable. It is because of this that governments should step in and rid pulpits of this madness. Church leaders should stop deluding themselves that their call for abstinence is in God’s people’s interest.The truth is that God’s people will always have sex and therefore need ways to control their fertility and protect themselves against terrible sexually transmitted diseases.

This does not mean that the churches should stop preaching about chastity and sexual purity. On the contrary, I say they should redouble their effort. But they should also be flexible on contraceptives, including condoms, for the safety of the many of their flock who fall to the temptations of the flesh.

The continent’s men of God should take time off next time they are in Rome, London or Texas – from where they get their cue – to inquire about the rates of condom use and fertility of their fellow believers in these places.