Afrikan extermination day?

On the 18th World AIDS Day, 65 percent of global victims are Afrikans. Is there any hope?

In the 14th century, the bubonic plague wiped out 40 million people in Asia and Europe, reducing Europe’s population by a third. At the end of World War I, 25 million people around the world died of influenza. In each case, kings, popes, citizens and soldiers sobbed, screamed and prayed for cures while bodies fell like trees ravaged by a forest inferno.

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Yet it was in the power of nobody alive to stop or even slow the onslaught of the epoch-shattering pandemics. But imagine, for instance, that Afrikan scientists at the University of Sankore in Mali had held cures to these plagues, but refused to share them because Europe was unable to provide sufficient gold in payment? How would history have judged Afrika for demanding such a ransom?

Today, 40.3 million people around the world have contracted HIV/AIDS—2.3 million of them children. 26 million of these “living dead”—almost 65 percent—are Afrikans. While donor governments make extravagant election promises of aid to block AIDS, pharmaceutical megacorporations demand monetary tribute beyond the reach of most victims at this hour of planetary crisis. December 1, the 18th World AIDS Day, might just as easily be renamed “Afrikan Extermination Day.”

Unless sufferers get a cure or treatment for the disease which has already killed 25 million people—3 million in this year alone—AIDS will eventually take more lives than did the bubonic plague. So says Peter Lamptey, president of the US-based Family Health International Aids Institute, in the British Medical Journal. It’s not difficult to deduce the colour of the majority who will die because of HIV—nor the colour of the reason: green. During the market devastation of 2001 while Forbes 500 companies were nose-diving, Big Drugs actually increased their profits 32 percent from $28 billion to $37 billion. Although HIV/AIDS should be regarded as a global emergency, for others, it’s a capitalistic pornographic fantasy—millions of customers literally dying to get their product.

Fortunately for Afrika and the world, not everyone researching HIV/AIDS is a humanoid vulture during what may become the hottest walk through the desert in history. Edmontonian Deanne Langois spent much of last year conducting research in the East Afrikan country of Uganda, which, despite poverty, homophobia, and taboos against discussing sex, is one of the few countries on humanity’s motherland to have taken effective action against the pandemic. “Uganda still has had incredible impacts from HIV,” says Langois, “but it certainly would have been worse had [the government of President Yoweri Museveni] not been so active [against] it.”

In addition to government-sponsored public awareness campaigns which plowed through taboos in the face mass death, citizens organised themselves, including into one group called the West Post-Test Club. “This was a group of post-test, most HIV-positive, some negative, members of the community,” says Langois, “who came together to do dramas and singing and went to markets and schools. I went to their inaugural opening, and it was incredible to see the work and the bravery that these people had to go out there, still fighting discrimination and stigma, but sticking out their necks to do it because they know it’s not going to get better if they don’t.”
While recognising that HIV/AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, Langois points out a deeper fact of injustice: “To me, it’s more a disease of poverty, because in developing countries, something as simple as a [non-HIV STD] that doesn’t get treated that causes lesions creates the absolute perfect site for HIV transmission [during sex]. Because of all this, and lack of nutrition, and lack education--you can’t understand or have access to the prevention messaging, and the lack of technology such as radio and TV means you can’t even hear the messages that come out--it’s no wonder that the epidemic took off like it did there.”

That massive suffering is immediately evident in the numbers. In Uganda’s population of 27.3 million people, infant mortality is 67,800 per million, compared to Canada’s 4800 per million for 32.8 million people. Ugandan life expectancy is 51.6 years compared to a Canadian’s 80.1 years. In 2003 in Uganda, 4.1% of the population or 530,000 people were infected, but in Canada, it was “only” 0.3% or 56,000 people.

Along with that of other researchers, Langois’s task was to evaluate how the use of traditional medicines affected the success of industrial medicine, specifically antiretroviral drugs. Langois, who holds an M.Sc. in Medical Sciences, has a B.Sc. in Physical Therapy and had worked in that field for 11 years. Through her Ugandan research, she wanted to draw links between suffering and the larger circumstances that produced that suffering. “The new wave that is coming is the number of HIV/AIDS orphans that have been left by this disease,” she says. “Right now we have about 12 millions such orphans in Afrika alone. We’re losing the adults in those communities—so it’s not just the loss of the parents, it’s the loss of the extended families, teachers, of care-givers. The question has to be asked, what happens to this up and coming generation? What will happen, not only in terms of HIV/AIDS but in terms of overall development as well?”

During her research, Langois was surprised to discover that, unlike what medical literature was emphasising, only about eight percent of people in Western Uganda were accessing traditional healers. Many of the remainder, however, were gathering their own herbs without the training or expertise that traditional healers—whatever their merits—would have. But her study demonstrated that almost 90 percent of Ugandans would prefer to be able to access industrial medicine and doctors trained in Western medicine. “They simply don’t have access to it,” says Langois. She’s not exaggerating. Compared to Canada’s rate of 2100 doctors per million people, Uganda has only 47 (less than half the pre-Structural Adjustment Policies rate during the 1970s). In a city the size of Edmonton, that would be about 48 doctors—and Edmonton doesn’t have the AIDS crisis of Uganda. “In our area,” says Langois, “we were in a municipality with a lot of drug shops. So it’s not accessibility in terms of, ‘Oh, I can’t physically reach the store,’ but ‘I just don’t have the money to buy the modern drugs. And when I have so many herbs growing in my back yard, I’m going to use them.

“The purpose of our study wasn’t to say that herbal medicine was bad or good,” continues Langois. “I think that there are probably a lot of good things and in some herbs they’re actually finding a lot of antiretroviral properties in them. The problem is that in some herbs is that you get toxins along with beneficial substances and you can’t break them out when you use them on your own. That said, some herbs may stand a chance at least of enhancing the effects of antiretrovirals or help work on some of their negative side effects.” Refusing to rule out the potential benefit of herbs in the war on AIDS, Langois was more concerned with finding out about herbal interactions, positive or negatives, with industrial medicines. The field is largely unstudied, so as yet, no one has any answers. Given the prevalence of herbal use across the continent and the World Health Organisation plan to put three million people on antiretrovirals by the end of this year—a target which will not be met, says Langois—the need for answers is great. Some substances such as concentrated garlic and St. John’s Wort, for instance, pose a threat, decreased the blood plasma concentration of two antiretroviral drugs, promoting resistance to the drug itself. Worse still, anyone who “achieves” resistance to a medicine, if he passes HIV to anyone else, will pass a resistant version of the lethal virus. Doctors in poor countries, lacking variety in antiretroviral drugs, will be unable to prescribe alternates for their resistant patients.

Despite the obstacles, Langois found herself profoundly moved by her experience in Uganda. “I think the biggest thing that I came home with,” she says, “[having] only seeing Afrikan culture portrayed on commercials or in donor drives, the message that came home with me was, ‘They’re no different than us.’ They love their kids, they love their families, they want to have a healthy and prosperous life to the same extent that we do. Death is not something unusual for them. They attend more funerals than any of us will ever attend in our lives. That said, life has to go on. They mourn the loss of those that they love and those that they know, but they have to move on quicker [than we do] because life is harsh, and if you don’t move on, you’re going to suffer even more. That said, the amount of community spirit, the amount of laughter, was absolutely incredible. We have a lot to learn from people in developing countries in the midst of this epidemic that are handling it with such incredible grace, I think, considering everything that’s going on—I don’t think that we could do that as well as they have. And I think it’s because they have dealt with so much disparity that unfortunately it is part of life and they have managed to move on with that.”

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