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AFRICA: Governments Failing to Take the Threat of HIV Seriously

Chris Stein

JOHANNESBURG, Sep 10 2010 (IPS) - Experts worry that African governments are failing to take the threat of HIV seriously enough by not dedicating enough of their resources to prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) efforts.

Graça Machel says the struggle to stop the spread of HIV is a matter of inequality. Credit: Chris Stein/IPS

Graça Machel says the struggle to stop the spread of HIV is a matter of inequality. Credit: Chris Stein/IPS

For Graça Machel, Chair of the Campaign to End Pediatric AIDS (CEPA) Council, the struggle to stop the spread of the disease is a matter of inequality.

“A child born in a developed country has all the chances for having a full, healthy, long life,” Machel said at a CEPA press conference on Sep. 10. “In Africa and Asia, they have much less of a chance.”

Machel and other East African council members of CEPA spoke about the challenge of stopping the spread of paediatric AIDS in the continent, which accounts for 90 percent of the world’s population of children born with HIV.

While funding remains a key issue in terms of combating paediatric AIDS, the experts were concerned about the lack of progress made on the Abuja Declaration, an agreement signed by African Union member nations to allocate at least 15 percent of their budgets to the improvement of their healthcare systems.

So far only six African countries have met that pledge, according to CEPA.

But while African Union countries have fallen short of their pledge, Machel said the issues to curbing the spread of the disease are systemic.

“I think we need to reprioritise,” Machel said. “We need to solve the problem of the health system.”

Avertino Barreto, CEPA Council member and current deputy national direct for health in Mozambique, said though his government had adopted a program of distributing antiretrovirals used in PMTCT for its population, the country’s underdeveloped supply chain was unable to get the drugs to the people who needed them.

“Mozambique has poor supply chain management, and our health budget allocation is far from 15 percent,” Barreto said. “There is no need for everyone who takes drugs to have to travel a long distance.”

Thrifty nations need to be reminded that fighting AIDS will save money in the long term, said Peter Mugyenyi, a specialist in HIV/AIDS and a member of the CEPA Council.

“[Preventing HIV/AIDS] is not a program that is taking money away,” Mugyenyi said. “It is saving huge amounts of money.”

With only five years left to meet the Millennium Development Goals, Machel said progress over the last ten years had been modest, but that was no reason to back down.

“We cannot pledge to do this then five years down the road say we did not,” Machel said.

Community Roles

In the face of the inadequate healthcare system in many African countries, Dorothy Mbori-Ngacha, UNICEF Regional Advisor on prevention of mother-to-child transmission for Eastern and Southern Africa, said it was important for local communities to play a role in promoting the use of medication.

“We need to partner with mothers, fathers and the community as a whole,” Mbori-Ngacha said. “When a health system is ineffective, the community is crucial.”

Another obstacle to getting expecting mothers to take antiretrovirals is stigma, Mugyenyi said. Education and community are key to ending the stigma of HIV/AIDS, Mugyenyi said. “The crisis is that one of the biggest drives of stigma is fear of death,” Mugyenyi said. “When people know that the death rate can be reduced, it reduces stigma.”

Another player in the struggle against the virus is civil society organisations, which provide important ways to access communities, Mbori-Ngacha said.

“We know now what to do to end paediatric AIDS,” Mbori-Ngacha said. “We require that apart from seeing communities, that unless we support civil society, we are going to fail.”

There was reason to be optimistic, Mugyenyi said: for the first time in history, recent advances in preventative medicine make it possible for a future generation to be free from HIV/AIDS.

“There was no possibility of having an AIDS-free generation in the past,” Mugyenyi said. “Now it is here.”

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