IN early October, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia addressed his nation. With a steady voice, Mr. Kaunda publicly disclosed that his son, Masuzga Kaunda, who died in December, was a victim of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). ``How my son got AIDS, I don't know,'' his father said while making his appeal for a concerted African attack as part of a comprehensive international campaign against AIDS. It was the first time an African of world stature had openly acknowledged that a member of his family had been stricken by the disease. Kaunda's courageous move has been hailed by international health officials who hope it will usher in a new openness about AIDS in Africa.
While it appears that at least some African states are finally beginning to face up to the challenge posed by AIDS, there is a fear that it has come too little, too late. The disease has spread like a brushfire through Africa, indeed more quickly than in either Europe or America.
In Zambia, one of the hardest-hit countries, the number of cases doubles every eight months. Latest estimates put the total number of carriers at more than 2.5 million, with over 50,000 deaths to date. Given the persistent sensitivity in many African capitals to AIDS research and reporting, however, these figures are at best informed guesses.
What has caused most concern is that in most of Africa AIDS has struck and is spread by heterosexuals, with roughly equal ratios of men to women infected. Young, sexually active urban dwellers appear to be the segment of society hit the hardest. Consequently, a growing number of babies are born infected with the virus. A study undertaken in Kinshasa, Zaire, indicated that more than 10 percent of all positive-antibody HIV cases were less than two years old.
AIDS awareness programs have been initiated in Kenya, Zaire, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other African states but have done little to dispel the myths and disinformation shrouding the disease. A survey of 630 teacher trainees in Zimbabwe revealed that nearly 70 percent believed AIDS could be contracted from toilet seats. In South Africa, doctors have found that many migrant black miners believe it is caused by spirits or witch doctors. Others in black Africa are convinced that the ``safer sex'' campaign involving the use of condoms is part of a white conspiracy to reduce the black population. Further, the reports that the AIDS virus was a creation of US biological weapons research (a story trumpeted by Soviet propagandists) has gained wide currency on the continent. Ironically, the Soviets have been giving blood tests and quarantines to all African students arriving in the Soviet Union and for all returning military advisers stationed in Africa.
South Africa is now bracing itself for an onslaught, not from the international community, but from migrant black workers. So far in South Africa, AIDS has been mainly confined to whites - claiming 60 lives among homosexuals, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs. But health officials in Pretoria fear that AIDS will soon spread with astonishing speed to the black population because of the migrant labor system, which sends millions of workers across the country. Random samples from pregnant women and blood donors suggest there may already be 15,000 HIV carriers in South Africa. Tests on mine workers to date have turned up about 1,000 positive cases. In typical Draconian manner, South African officials have warned that all foreign workers with AIDS will be expelled, but even these measures are unlikely to stem the spread of AIDS in South Africa.
How will Africa ultimately cope with the coming of AIDS? There are encouraging signs that African leaders have come to regard AIDS as more than simply a Western plot, but press restrictions on AIDS reporting for Western correspondents are still in force on much of the continent. Western health officials based in Geneva and New York stress that a massive education campaign is necessary to head off an epidemic. This will undoubtedly require international support and coordination, but to date there has been little public attention to Africa's plight. Some have seen in project Food Aid a model for an international campaign to combat AIDS in Africa.
Tentative attempts to organize an ambitious world effort, however, have failed to capture public imagination and have also spurred some lingering African fears about meddling. What is needed is a more courageous and public airing of the AIDS challenge by all African leaders in a variety of forms. Only by confronting the horror of AIDS can Africa begin to cope with and later control this disease.
Kurt M. Campbell is lecturer and assistant director at the Center for Science and International Affairs, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University.