- 2001-07-25 (Creation)
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Whenever we talk about HIV / AIDS the word "crisis" immediately comes to mind. In many ways this has served to deaden our thoughts about just how big a crisis HIV / AIDS indeed is. It is like the message on cigarette packs: we are told that smoking will kill us, yet we continue to smoke.
Perhaps we need to remind ourselves just how big the AIDS crisis really is: Status of HIV/ AIDS in South Africa
• 4.7 Million or 13 percent of the world's 37 million HIV infected people live in South Africa;
• 250,000 people in South Africa die of AIDS related diseases each year;
• There are at least 250,000 orphans because of AIDS deaths;
• Anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 children (under age of sixteen) are the heads of households;
• Infection rates are still unacceptably high, anywhere between 13 and 25 percent.
We also need to ask ourselves why HIV infection rates continue to spiral, in spite of the numerous efforts and the millions of Rand being spent to educate people about the disease. Many of these efforts are of high quality, and those
implementing those programmes are people of integrity.
In a recent survey commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Children's Fund, it was found that:
• HIV / AIDS awareness programmes are not reaching all South Africans. There are many barriers, including cultural, linguistic and geographic.
• Awareness where it occurs, does not necessarily translate into behaviour changes.
• There continues to be huge mistrust of the message and the medium. It was found that only 1% per cent of South
Africans "listen" to the media, whether it emanates from government or NGOs.
• 46 per cent of South Africans said they had learnt nothing about HIV/ AIDS during the last year.
If we evaluate the various awareness programmes, I am sure that we will find all kinds of technical reasons for their apparent inability, when taken cumulatively, to make any real impact on people's attitudes towards HIV / AIDS. Yes, the existing programmes can be strengthened, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation intends helping many of the organisations fighting the spread of the disease.
My own belief is that the anti-AIDS message is not succeeding because of one major obstacle: stigmatisation.
There is still a huge sense of shame attached to the disease. Those who become HIV positive are often seen as simply promiscuous, when in fact the truth is far more complex. How many individuals have infected their partners because they are afraid to acknowledge to themselves that they are HIV positive, or cannot speak about their infection for fear of alienating their loved ones?
There are also so many myths about how HIV is spread. There are people who believe that the disease can be contracted by simply being in the same room as someone who is HIV positive. This results in a culture of secrecy and denial. It inhibits voluntary testing on a nationwide scale. This is the only way we can really establish the true extent of the disease, its geographic patterns, and its age and gender distribution.
Furthermore, the refusal, or inability to speak openly about the disease, especially in our rural areas and among other traditional societies and religious groups, makes it difficult to develop effective education campaigns.
The time has come for South Africans to make a concerted effort to fight the stigmatisation of those who are HIV positive, those who are dying of AIDS. And it is time for South Africans to stop saying that it someone else's responsibility to combat this illness. It is the responsibility of every South African. Of course, this process of developing "champions" of a cause, requires catalysts, individuals who influence the opinions of others.
It should start with each member of the Amakhosi talking frankly to his people, it should extend to Members of Parliament devoting the first ten per cent of every speech to this topic, to every doctor talking to their patients during each consultation. Every trade union leader, every shop steward, every employer, every lawyer should, during the course of their daily work, ask: what can we do to help stop the spread of HIV?
This country should develop an army of anti-aids campaigners, they should regard AIDS as an enemy against which our country is at war with. They should fight this war every day, from the shop floor, from offices, on sports fields and in classrooms.
Perhaps we can make a start here today: how many commanders of this anti-aids army will come forward from the leaders of the trade union movement? You need to be bold and vociferous. We cannot just rely on political leaders, on billboards and TV adverts to spread the message. It should be spread by word of mouth, from comrade to comrade, from worker to worker, until we have defeated this dreadful enemy called AIDS.
Saying to people: AIDS is not a curse that we must deny, it is an illness that can be defeated. Resisting the continued stigmatisation of HIV positive people is not only a compassionate act, it is practical and pragmatic.
I thank you.