Rejuvenation in Africa

Today the United Nations Security Council takes up an issue of global security: how to free sub-Saharan Africa from the pandemic of AIDS.

This will be the first time that the Security Council has tackled a health issue. That's because the UN believes AIDS is killing more people in Africa than the continent's many wars. The international community has dropped any concerns about the appearance of racism in focusing on AIDS in Africa. The numbers are hard to ignore.

An estimated 22 million Africans are infected with the HIV virus that's thought to cause AIDS. In 1998, about 7 out of 10 newly diagnosed HIV cases worldwide in 1998 were in Africa.

The world can't let a continent of people already living on the margins face a 21st-century holocaust. Who knows what the global spillover might be, let alone the pangs of conscience.

But what can the UN and others do? After 20 years of debate about AIDS, the choices have narrowed.

Expensive drug therapies may have stemmed the disease in the West for now, but their costs and the difficulties of administering the drugs greatly reduce this option in the vast poverty of Africa. This material approach, although pursued with urgent compassion, not only has limits but diverts attention and resources away from the deeper issue of how to rejuvenate the thinking of those who live with the threat of AIDS in their neighborhood.

Another choice has been to call for "safe sex" (and safe needles for intravenous drug users). But such efforts have so far had little effect, pointing to a need for a more radical approach.

In at least two countries, Senegal and Uganda, steps have been taken to de-stigmatize the topic of AIDS so that it can at least be discussed. Dispelling the fear of public condemnation among those with HIV opens the possibility for practical solutions.

In Uganda, for instance, an education program focuses on the need for values that can alter behavior that might lead to AIDS. Young people are advised to delay their first sexual experience by at least two years, with the hope they will adopt abstinence as good for both them and society. In Carletonville, South Africa, the Mothusimpilo Outreach Project has some 60 workers trained as "peer educators" to teach men and women about HIV prevention. Early results show significant progress, especially in empowering women to demand that men use condoms.

Outsiders can help. An African-American religious minister in Boston, The Rev. Eugene Rivers, is gathering support in the US for a bold assault on the cultural and moral conditions that contribute to the spread of AIDS in Africa. He is urging black leaders in Africa and the US to confront what he calls a sexual holocaust against women and children. To counter the rampant rape and multipartner sex by men, Mr. Rivers brings a message of abstinence and sexual fidelity.

He's up against some deep rural traditions, such as a myth among African men that AIDS can be cured by having sex with a virgin. A survey in Zimbabwe revealed that 80 percent of married men are involved in extramarital affairs. "We should fight the behavior, not make up fancy excuses for it," Rivers says.

Chastity is a tough demand in Africa, but it's the foundation for the continent's progress. Programs to provide comfort to those already suffering from AIDS and to lift Africa's economy are essential as the world focuses on this issue. But both global and personal security rests on simple moral values, such as respect, commitment, and responsibility - whether in Africa or elsewhere.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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