Every year, December 1 is marked as World Aids Day—a day to raise awareness and highlight the plight of those living with Aids. When officially started in 1988, over 70,000 people were reportedly living with AIDS, and it was blamed for more than 20,000 deaths. Today, it continues to infect and affect millions on almost every corner of the world. UNAIDS puts the total number of people living with the virus at 34 million. Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the highest casualty. At least 23 million people in that region are said to be living with HIV/AIDS—representing close to 70 percent of the global infection rate.
But when one thinks of people living with AIDS in Africa, the story would be incomplete without recognizing the progress made in fighting the virus on the continent. During the month of December, Africa.com visited Wola Nani in Cape Town, South Africa—one of the many organizations helping those infected with the virus.
Weight loss was the first sign. Then, Monica Solundwana couldn’t keep her food down. The then 29-year old new mother became so weak she could barely hold her three-month old baby in her arms. Her grandmother took her to the hospital. Blood was drawn, tests performed, and after three days, the results came: “They told me I was HIV-positive.”
There was no pre- or post-test counseling, nor any treatment. Six months later, her baby became ill. A trip to the doctor confirmed that he too was HIV-positive. What followed was months of him being in and out of hospital. It was a distance from their home in the informal settlement, and so Monica could only visit him when she had enough money for transport. During that time, her condition deteriorated too. “One day I got a call to say he was getting better and I could come fetch him. But then, when he was 17 months old, he became sick again. Two weeks later, doctors told me there’s nothing else they can do. They said there is no hope”. A day later, he died. “I found him in the fridge. I wanted to see him for the last time. I told myself—you virus, you’ve taken away my child but you can’t kill me.” Monica has now been living with AIDS for more than 16 years.
Living with AIDS in Africa
In South Africa, 5.6 million people are said to be HIV positive. International HIV/Aids organization Avert reports that in 2010, more than 30 percent of pregnant women (between the ages of 15 – 49) in the country were living with Aids. It is also estimated that close to 11 percent of all South Africans over the age of two are infected with the virus. The figures are equally glum across the region. In countries like Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, the prevalence rate is reportedly more than 20 percent of the population. These figures put the region at the top of those worst affected by the HIV epidemic. According to UNAIDS “out of the total number of people living with HIV worldwide in 2009, 34 percent resided in 10 countries of Southern Africa.” It’s a lot of figures. More than just numbers, these are lives. What it tells us is that HIV/Aids continues to ravage the continent.
Know Your Status
“Why me?” It’s a question Monica asked herself on hearing the news she was HIV-positive. But it quickly changed to “What can I do?”. Turns out, a lot. “I just lived positively”, she says. “I was eating the normal food. I didn’t have money to buy healthy food. The only thing that helped was the support group when I knew there was other people who were going through the same thing.” The “other people” were those she met when she joined Wola Nani in 1998. She started with the craft project, an initiative that still exists today.
The aim is to provide a source of income from making goods like paper mache bowls, decorated light bulbs, and colorful candle holders. These are then sold both locally and abroad. Monica later became a home carer through the organization, spreading her message of living positively to all those she visited. “I was visiting homes and delivering food parcels, and when they’re very ill we arrange for them to go to a clinic.” The clinic is where Monica now spends much of her time, administering HIV tests. On a normal day she sees an average of 18 people. “At least 3 or 4 will test positive” she tells me. Know your status. It’s a message spread by governments and HIV/AIDS organizations across the continent—and it seems to be working.
UNAIDS reports that there’s been significant increase in HIV testing across sub-Saharan Africa. In Ethiopia for example, more than 20 percent of adult males were tested for HIV in 2010, up from just two percent six years earlier. In Kenya, it reportedly went up from eight to 23 percent in five years. Twenty-seven percent more adult women were tested in Rwanda in 2010 than in 2005, while in Lesotho saw a 36 percent jump between 2004–2009 in the same demographic. It’s the first step. An important one. Once you know your status, you can seek treatment if needed. It hasn’t always been that easy. Monica, when diagnosed, was told their was no treatment. Much of that has changed. UNAIDS statistics show that coverage of treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission in sub-Saharan Africa is around 60 percent. At the same time more than 6 million people are said to be receiving antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in the region.
The progress in both testing and treatment has undoubtedly had an impact on the decrease in infections—particularly during the past decade. According to UNAIDS, in sub-Saharan Africa, new infections saw a 25 percent decline over a 10-year period from 2001 to 2011. Between 2009 to 2011, the number of new children infections in the region dropped by nearly the same percentage (though in Angola, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau the number has increased). During that same time, some countries showed dramatic improvements, including Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia—where the decline in new child infections averaged close to 50%. “It’s better now,” says Monica, “it’s better now.”