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AIDS Epidemic In African Countries

The killer disease AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is spreading with unprecedented speed all over the globe. It has emerged as a serious socio-economic and public health problem. AIDS seems to be the most dreaded disease in human history. The tragedy of AIDS in the worst affected countries of Africa and the West is likely to repeat itself in many countries over the world.

It is reported that cases of AIDS were first noted in African nationals seeking treatment in Europe only shortly after AIDS was realized in the United States. Later on, epidemiological studies found that AIDS was a widespread phenomenon throughout central Africa with most cases linked by heterosexual contact. Testing of stored blood documented HIV in African as early as 1965 and reviews of medical records found cases consistent with AIDS in Africans as early as 1975. A sample of stored blood collected in Africa in 1959 contained HIV, making it the oldest known isolate of the virus. In addition an English sailor who had been in central Africa in 1958 was found to have AIDS by analyzing preserved tissues for the presence of HIV. All of these findings indicate that HIV was probably spreading through parts of African continent before it arrived in the USA and in European countries. But here, we will only discuss about the current situations in Africa.

At the beginning of the present country, some 23.3 million Africans (mostly in the Sub-Saharan region) are estimated to have HIV infection or AIDS by UNAIDS/WHO. That is about 70% of the world’s total AIDS patients in a region that is home to just 10% of the world’s population. UNAIDS / WHO estimated in 1999 that nearly 90% of the half million children born with the virus or infected through breast feeding were living in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In many African countries antenatal estimates tend to underestimate the real levels of HIV infection in women. The reason is that, infected women progressively become less fertile and hence less likely they are to get pregnant. And because many HIV- infected women are no longer becoming pregnant, they are not showing up at antenatal clinics where blood samples for anonymous HIV testing are taken. The antenatal estimates thus fail to reflect the true extent of HIV infection in the female population as the whole.

So, not surprisingly, there are significantly more women than men living with HIV infection in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ratio of the women to men though is not the same everywhere. It changes over time and place. Current information suggests that more men than women have become infected in the early stages of the heterosexual epidemic especially in settings where a small number of sexual workers rapidly become infected and in turn spread HIV to a much larger number of men. Overtime the male-female gap has been closing; eventually the ratio will get reversed. On average, however, the 15 studies conducted in both rural and urban areas in different African countries suggested that between 12 and 13 African women are infected for every 10 African men. At the end of 1999, 12.2 million women and 10.1 million men aged 15-49 were living with the dreaded HIV in Sub-Saharan territory.

HIV passes more easily from men to women than women to men through sexual intercourse. It has been found that women get infected far earlier than men. Factors responsible for this may be both biological and cultural – as they are exposed to sex at much younger age compared to men. Girls aged 15-19 are around 5 or 6 times more likely to be HIV positive than boys of their own age in African population.

The tragedy is that there is no cure as yet for this disease despite all the research that has been going on for almost 4 decades now. So those suffering HIV have nothing to do but pray to God and wait for their slow demise. We can only sympathize with them and hope for a breakthrough in medicine.